Smile Politely

Meet mural artist Carlie Upchurch

Nine years ago, artist Carlie Upchurch moved to Chambana from Bloomington, Illinois. And judging by her recently unveiled Vibrant Public Mural, their loss is definitely our gain. Funded by a 2020 Urbana Arts grant, the “mural depicts a bright and playful interpretation of personal or collective transformation through self-reflection, nature preservation, and self-expression.” Behind these hopeful words is an artist, who, like her unique mural, may be just the antidote to a most challenging year. 

Always avid to meet a new (or new-to-me) artist, I reached out to Upchurch to learn more about her work—what inspires her, how this mural came about, and what’s next for her. Having recently “retired” from the food and beverage world, this now full-time artist is definitely one to watch. I’m sure you’ll find her story, and her work, as inspiring as I did.  

Smile Politely: How did your journey as an artist begin? 

Carlie Upchurch: My mom always said “I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil,” so let’s go with that.

SP: What art training have you received?

Upchurch: My training began as a genuine reflex towards expressing myself through drawing and painting. Summer art programs and art clubs were a large part of my youth. My aunt sponsored my first mural, a hippo theme in her bathroom, at 11 years old. At Heartland Community College [in Normal, Illinois], I finished an Associate in Arts degree in 2008 and stayed another semester for an Independent Study in Painting with Michael McAvoy. I transferred to Herron School of Art & Design [in Indianapolis, Indiana] in 2009 for another year before I dropped out to enter the workforce. I worked in bars and restaurants for 10 years and recently “retired” to focus on my art career.

SP: What media have you worked in / what are you working in these days?

Upchurch: Always preferring a more tactile experience, I love painting most of all. Charcoal, acrylic, oils and oil pastels, watercolor, woodworking and woodburning, jewelry design, and sewing have been incorporated into my work frequently. These days I’m focusing on building a sturdy foundation for my art to thrive and learning digital technologies that compliment my work.

SP: Who or what have been your influences?

Upchurch: My influences come from my friends and family, from music and style icons of the 70s, 80s & 90s. I’m drawn to interesting patterns and bold colors as much as sleek, simple, natural, and neutral ones. Forever fascinated by spiritual, mystical, and otherworldly realms, the universe, human consciousness, and symbolism found in Tarot & oracle cards.  

SP: Tell us how the mural project came about?

Upchurch: This mural project came about after I finished a similarly styled mural inside 25 O’Clock Brewery in September 2019, and met Rachel Storm [ of the Urbana Arts and Culture Commission] shortly thereafter. Rachel put a bug in my ear that murals were being considered for 2020 Arts Grants in Urbana and thankfully reminded me to apply more than once! So grateful for the opportunity!

SP: What inspired the design?

Upchurch: The design was inspired loosely by Ancient Egyptian art scrolls. I wanted to develop my own story-telling narratives within a similarly limited color palette and refined character style.

Photo of Carlie Upchurch's new mural at 123 Main Street, Urbana.

SP: What was it like working on a site-specific mural? How did it impact/change your process?

Upchurch: Working on a site-specific mural of this capacity was certainly a learning process, mostly within the administrative context though, the overall process and approach is the same for me in an objective painting of any size, I’ll outline, then block in colors, then refine lines and add details at the end.

SP: What do you hope it brings to the community?

Upchurch: I hope the mural brings a moment of brightness to the sometimes overwhelmingly dreary year 2020 has been for many of us, especially those within marginalized and vulnerable communities. I hope it can inspire others to pursue their dreams.

SP: Have you done murals before?  If so, where can we find them?

Upchurch: I’ve done a handful of murals before, most recently the one mentioned earlier in the bathroom hallway at 25 O’Clock Brewery. Another in Marion, Illinois for the 2017 total eclipse.

SP: What are some of the perks (and challenges) of working at such a large scale and/or of working outdoors?

Upchurch: Working on an outdoor public mural of this size brought mostly perks. Any challenges were minor and really just opportunities to learn. It became especially comforting to have something outdoors and constructive to focus on in the post-quarantine era of face masks and six feet of separation.

SP: How would you describe your style? Or, looked at differently, how has your work been described?

Upchurch: My style has been described as bold and tender at the same time, commonly depicting elements found in nature and alluding to some fascination with the unknown.

SP: What’s the best advice you’ve received about succeeding as an artist?

Upchurch: The best advice I’ve received as an artist was to not look at my “failures” negatively, but as an opportunity to learn, and that work creates WORK.

Photo of artist Carlie Upchurch in front of her new mural at 123 Main Street in Urbana.

SP: What’s up next for you? 

Upchurch: My next move is to make my work more accessible through developing an online store. I’ve recently [had a meeting] about a new outdoor mural for a client also in Urbana but details are still in the preproduction phase.

Find Carlie Upchurch on Instagram and Facebook, or by email, at carlieupchurchartwork at

Watch the video of Upchurch’s mural unveiling on the Urbana Arts & Culture Program’s YouTube channel.

All photos from the Urbana Arts & Culture Program’s Facebook page

Arts Editor

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