Ebony Blevins
Hurd with one of the banners he’s created for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. (Photo by Ebony Blevins)

Perrion Hurd was walking in his sock feet across a huge banner he was painting for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center when a reporter visited him. The inspirational panels, some as long as 20 feet, will be installed on the exterior of the museum in February to replace banners that have faded since the MTCC’s opening in 2008. 

“I hope this will be the beginning of what could be a community mural arts program,” Hurd said. It was just such a program that stirred his interest in art nearly 40 years ago in Memphis.

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Hurd, 47, was 8 years old and headed to the Cornelia Crenshaw Library on Vance Street in south Memphis when he saw a man painting on a wall on the back of a grocery store. He did not know it was OK to paint on walls, so he asked the librarian, “Can you do that?” The librarian said yes, he’s making murals. “Mules?” Hurd asked. No, murals, the librarian said, and told him what they were. So Hurd went over to the man, “and the guy handed me a paintbrush and said, ‘Go ahead and paint this part right here.’ ”

While he was telling the tale, Hurd pulled out of his wallet old photographs of the mural he’d taken, taped together to capture the entirety of the long painting. “These kept me going through lots of hard times,” he said.

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Hurd sold his first painting when he was in his 20s when he was an art student at the University of Memphis and working at a pathology lab. His doodles of pregnant women on the doctors’ notes — Hurd had become a father — intrigued one of his colleagues, who gave him $100 and asked him to turn the doodle into a painting. Hurd was awed; he took the money and bought paints, a canvas, brushes and “a gigantic bottle of Martin and Rossi sangria wine and some chicken to bake on my little grill. I had already won the game in my head.”

The hard times are apparently over for Hurd, who has been able to focus on his painting and printmaking full time since last year. He has been named the 2020 Black History Month Signature Artist for Mosaic Templars.

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Hurd approached Mosaic Templars Director Christina Shutt about the idea for banners in 2017, he said. As it turned out, consultants working on a new interpretation for the museum — Mosaic Templars has begun a $3 million capital campaign to redo its exhibits — had suggested to Shutt that the museum add something to its exterior to draw people in, to show that it was a black history museum, and she thought new banners were just the thing.

Hurd has worked with the museum in the years since, doing a printmaking demonstration for a Juneteenth event and creating the artwork for a chocolate bar that Bentonville chocolatiers Kyya produced for Mosaic’s 10-year anniversary in 2018. Shutt called Hurd in May 2019 to tell him the museum could go forward with the banner project and wanted to designate him the Black History Month artist. (He’s the third. Previous Black History Month artists were Danny Broadway and Saundra Strong.)

The murals’ themes — culture, success, people, survival and oppression, education and the arts and sciences — reflect the new interpretive plan. Mosaic Templars will host a reception at 6 p.m. Feb. 6 for Hurd, when his preparatory artwork, along with photographs by Ebony Blevins of the evolution of the banners, will be on exhibit.

Shutt called Hurd’s work “vibrant and unique. … That’s the thing I love most. Oftentimes, we’re influenced by things [we’ve seen] and it comes through, but with Perrion it’s hard to pinpoint that. It doesn’t feel that anything he does is a copy of anybody else.”

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Hurd describes his style as Afro-Futurism Geometric Symbolism, inspired by cultural icons Parliament-Funkadelic, Sun Ra and Michael Jackson, and Byzantine, traditional African art and aboriginal art. He is all about line: “I enjoy the dead-on flatness. It gives me an opportunity to play with color and patterns and shape,” like the waves of Dreamtime dots and chevrons that wrap around his figures. The halo-like circles around his figures’ heads and mandala features lend an air of spirituality to the banners.

Hurd — who is also a printmaker — works from a studio at Bodark Creative on West Markham Street, established by Yella Dog Press founder Kate Askew. Askew, who creates handset letterpress posters, cards and other items, invited Hurd to use her presses after she saw his work in an exhibition.

“She showed me what she does and how my art with her printmaking machines could work together,” Hurd said. It’s collaboration he calls “peanut butter and jelly,” and together they’ve been turning out notecards, linoleum block prints and larger prints. “She showed me how to take my little blocks to the next level,” Hurd said. “She’s a mega-awesome person.”   

The artist, who is also exhibiting drawings on gold scratchboard at Hearne Fine Art, has been preparing himself for seeing his giant works on public view. “I’m practicing my cool,” Hurd said, laughing. “Every time I go by I’m going to feel accomplished and proud and grateful and thankful for the opportunity. The struggle is to say, I did that for the community, but now it’s time to move on to the next big thing.”

Those next goals: To be in the Arkansas Arts Center’s “Delta” exhibition when the arts center reopens in its enlarged space in 2022. To be part of the permanent collection at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

“Like a tribesman and a hunter, these are my bows and arrows and spears and sticks and bucket of water and bag of snacks, and I’m hunting down that game,” Hurd said. “I can only hope to keep doing stuff like this and serve my community. Dreams come true. You’ve got to stick with it. It does not happen overnight.”