It was disarmingly direct and a little flattering when Austin Lawrence’s Managing Partner Greg Hills emailed me directly offering to meet up and tell me what went down with the art at the Unscripted Hotel. He reached out less than twenty-fours after I published an article on the Clarion Content detailing what I knew about the graffitied art in the new luxury hotel’s garage.
Hills suggested coffee at Loaf and a conversation at the as yet unopened rooftop pool on the former Jack Tar. I was already impressed that the Managing Partner reached out to me personally rather than delegating a PR minion. The man’s company is putting an (estimated) $87 million project in the ground next to the 21C Hotel.
“He has time for me? One on one?” I thought.
Hills showed up five minutes early hard hat and safety vest tucked under his arm. I gave him credit, too, for picking Loaf (rather than suggesting a more posh option). To be fair, Austin Lawrence Partners has held a couple of neighborhood information sessions at the former Carrack location above Loaf.
Hills was personable and affable. I am a regular at Loaf. Noticing his construction gear, and hearing a bit of our conversation, one of my friends behind the counter excitedly asked a few questions about the Unscripted opening and the art. Hills was friendly and willing to answer her without playing it cagey. (Scored him more points with me.)
We grabbed our coffee to-go and headed into the garage. The first thing that became clear is that there is so much blank wall space left. If Durham artists are worried that it is all gone or even nearly gone, it is a false flag. I would estimate more than 80% of the available garage walls are blank.
As we looked around the space, Hills, who knew a great many of the construction crew by first name, proceeded to tell me the full story of how it came to be.
Hills and his wife, Jane, have an interior designer and decorator, Kevin Corn, whom they have been working with for more than twenty years.1
It was Corn who first introduced the Hills to the Street Art they brought to Durham. It was September 2016 in an art gallery in Los Angeles. Greg Hills told me he remembers thinking immediately the art was fantastic, but he was even more captivated by the stories behind it. A documentary style video was part of the installation. There were interviews with the graffiti artists talking about daily life where they were from and the situation on the streets they had roamed. As former gang members, the artists described being shot and doing prison time among other things. One young man was quoted saying it was miraculous that he had survived to age twenty.
The artists described how the ritualistic practice of working on their lettering was a large what helped them get through prison. On the outside, they only wanted to continue making art, even for no money. They were grateful to have walls to paint. They also started to work as practicing tattoo artists in the above board economy.
The Hills were moved by the stories even more than the art. Through Corn and the gallery they arranged to meet some of the artists personally, including, “Big Sleeps”, “Prime”, and “Def-Fer” who lifted up his shirt to show the Hills scars from eight bullets across his chest. He told them he flatlined more than once in a hospital. He described his personal gratitude about living what he now feels like is a life after death.
Meanwhile they were showing the Hills their art. Greg Hills says that these young men were incredibly nice, genuine, and willing to be open. They were grateful to be appreciated. They took the Hills and Corn to “The Container Yard” in East L.A. It is a vast collective creative space where artists are turning societal trash and refuse into artistic treasures. Old warehouses and shipping containers are transformed. Greg Hills tells me Hollywood types now use it as event space, including a recent bash for Rihanna.
Hills frequently speaks in terms of “we”. He and his wife, Jane, who I was to meet later that morning, are clearly incredible close. They think and operate like a team.
“We wanted to bring some of the street artists from L.A. to collaborate with Durham locals and kids.”
He makes it clear it wasn’t about getting the biggest names or the most famous people they could. Rather “we thought Big Sleeps message would resonate with the kids.” The Hills thought Durham was the kind of place that needed to hear these personal stories of troubled youth gone straight. The Hills thought that in Durham and especially in east Durham there were young people with art in their hearts and no places to express it.
As the project began to come together another artist, Ryan Keely, saw word of it on Big Sleeps’s Instagram. Sleeps has over 172,000 followers. Keely reached out to Austin Lawrence partners. He said he wanted to be involved, that he grew up in Durham, that he loved the idea of the garage art and the graffiti.
To the Hills that all sounded great, they had been hoping for a local element, Keely had his own level of artistic prominence, and he brought a local boy made good angle. As Greg Hills told me, they later found out Keely was from Raleigh, though he had “hung out” in Durham growing up. But with his disarming charm, Hills conceded that even if they had known that from the beginning, they likely still would have brought Keely on board, as part of a local element.
Greg Hills told me despite reaching out through channels that included the Durham Arts Council and local arts supporter and attorney Dan Ellison, they didn’t hear back from Durham artists that wanted to participate in the first phase of the garage painting. When I reached Ellison, he agreed. The first thing he told me in our conversation was “you can’t blame Greg and Jane for the lack of Durham artists.” Ellison mentioned some former Durty Durham members who didn’t respond to inquiries about participating. Ellison also noted that one day downtown walking by with a young, local Durham artist they ran into the Hills who specifically and genuinely invited Ellison’s artist friend to be involved. (The artist declined to participate, but the reach out was real.)
Greg Hills also confirmed what I had heard about the City, specifically Brian Smith in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helping connect the garage graffiti art project to local kids including the School of Creative Studies and Southern High School.
Also Zach Praegar, who works in the local Austin Lawrence office, volunteers with the East Durham Children’s Initiative. When he reached out, they (EDCI) were eager to participate.
Artstigators under the auspices of Amy Unell heard about the project and also connected with the Hills and Austin Lawrence.
On April 26 and 27 with the out-of-state artists in town, the Hills and their designer convened a meeting. They hoped to have all three of the vertices of their initial plan in place, well-known artists, local artists, and kids. This was the first meeting where the Hills heard Ryan Keely was from Raleigh. The out-of-town artists had already done some painting in the garage before this meeting. Local artists who attended, including Candy Carver and Artie Barksdale, were frustrated and vocal about it. They felt like they had been brought into the process midway and too late.
Greg Hills concedes “maybe we should have tried harder.”
But as he and I looked around the garage, largely still a blank canvas, and when one looks at the number of kids who were allowed to participate in the painting that has already been done alongside nationally renowned artists, it wasn’t too hard to be understanding of Austin Lawrence’s efforts.
Hills said they never officially heard back from Carver or Barksdale after that initial meeting. He would still like to make peace and talk further with both of them. Hills wants it to be very clear this project and the blank walls are still very much open to Durham artists.
Over the course of the weekend, the artists and the Hills went with the EDCI kids for pizzas and sodas across the way at the Parrish Street Forum, and then around the corner to The Parlour for ice cream. Big Sleeps and the other artists talked to the kids about their experience. They helped them practice their lettering. In the garage, no one complained or stopped the kids when they painted outside the lines.2
Sleeps’s work is now not just on the street and in a Durham garage, but also in the world famous Getty Museum. He made time for Durham kids to share and he listened to their stories, too.
As Greg Hills and I left the garage and the pool behind and moved inside the hotel, I was able to see that lots of the original décor and features had been preserved, refurbished, and emphasized. The main bar has a beautiful marble top and a shiny brass foot rail.
Inside the nearly complete Unscripted Jane Hills explained to me in part, why Durham.
She said that it was about finding “niches where they could make a difference.” They were both passionate about what they do, she said [they were] passionate about architecture, that friendship and loyalty within the context of their work was extremely important to them. Durham fit.
The Hills (Duke graduates) told me they knew Durham was edgy and progressive. The Unscripted brand and the Dream Hotel Group have more than dozen other projects in the pipeline. The Hills are motivated by challenges and variety. They want to be stimulated and challenged, rather than stamping out buildings like license plates, the same thing over and over again.
They saw “Major the Bull’s” Plaza and envisioned a public square filled with performances and people, graced with outdoor seating and café tables.
I was surprised to discover they were aware of the Durham Cypher that happens around Major the Bull late some weekend evenings.
But the Hills are both hands on. As I left that morning, Jane Hills had an Exacto knife in hand and was cutting open cardboard boxes while wearing jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers. Greg Hills was heading to the 25th floor of One City Center to look at an issue with a concrete pour. Not exactly your stereotypical property scions.
And perhaps that is the key lens through which to understand this story. The Hills and Austin Lawrence are not everybody’s developers, but maybe they fit Durham.
I will offer one final story about One City Center that Greg Hills told me which I found both eye-opening and symbolic. Many of the type of metropolitan buildings that offer condos at price points similar to One City Center have private elevators, private pools, and separate workout facilities for condo owners that are not available to the renters in the same building. The Hills and Austin Lawrence were asked about that repeatedly by perspective buyers. The steadfastly refused to move in that direction. They knew one cannot foster community alongside exclusivity. One City Center’s elevators, pool, and workout facilities will be shared by renters in the building with the owners of the condos in the building.3
The art in the Unscripted Hotel garage will continue to grow. The Hills will continue to try to bring together well-known artists, Durham artists, and young people to make it happen.
1 The story of how they met him in Aspen, Colorado is a keeper.
2 The lines in this case are the arched former windows now bricked in, but still apparent in shape.
3 Hills told me all the condos have already been sold. The Hills having lived many years in Aspen were also quite aware of “dark windows” problems of seasonal renters. They knew the story of Franklin Street where many permanent residents have been displaced by owners who come to Chapel Hill only for basketball or football games and leave immediately afterward, to the detriment of the community and its street and social life. While the Hills didn’t have a magic bullet to fight this possibility in Durham, just their awareness and acknowledgement I took as a positive sign.