It was an incrediBULL, radiant fall day when I met up with Jewel Conway, a Bull City artist. Weather all too fitting to meet Jewel. Jewel’s personality is bright and beaming and her art reflects that. Her work is unapologetically attention grabbing.
I happened up her art in the best way possible, over tacos. On a particularly hot Sunday in August, a friend and I went “bull spotting” in Durham. We found what may be the farthest reaching bull in Durham at Bilboa’s convenience store as you’re coming into town on Angier Street. From there we scaled the city in 102 degree weather finding graffiti bulls, random train track bulls and more. We decided to call it a day on the bull spotting and head over to Gonza’s Tacos and Tequila.
Excusing myself to the bathroom to wash up, I left my assistant (dog) in my friend’s care and headed on inside. To my surprise and delight they have a “bull room.” It was unBULLievable. (Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming.)
As I snapped away at the different pieces of art, our waiter came over. Honestly, I thought he was going to tell me to delete my pics and put my phone away. This is before I fully came to understand the inviting, genuine nature of Durham that is eager to share its story.
Rather than get after me, Mike the waiter gave me the lowdown on all the art in the room. Turns out the owner Gonza himself made a good portion of it. Before I could text myself a reminder to try to score an interview with Gonza that included tacos and tequila, Mike moved on the bright bulls in the room demanding attention. He even moved a sliding door to give me a better view of one and then handed me the card for the artist behind the bulls.
Elated I bounded out to our table and recreated the conversation I had had with my friend and showed the pictures I had taken. I placed Jewel’s contact card in my purse and went about the awesome business of devouring some of the best vegetarian tacos of all time, along with local North Carolina watermelon margaritas that put a chill on a very hot and sticky Southern day.
A few days later I reached out to Jewel to find a time and place to meet. It took quiet a lot of work to find a time that worked for both us, especially with the complication of football season abounding. We finally decided to meet up at Beyu Caffe on Main Street. I had been dying to hear if the legends of their food and coffee were real and Jewel was kind enough to join me on this mission while we did our interview. I happened upon another fabulous piece of bull art as part of a beautiful mural in the hallway, but that is another tale to be told another time.
After the sweet waitress took our order, I asked Jewel how long she has been in the Durham area.
Jewel Conway: It’ll be 4 years in January 2017.
At this point the waitress came over with a new cup of coffee for me that was off the charts delicious and promised that our salads would be up shortly. As I put a small splash of cream in the dark roasted goodness in my cup, I asked Jewel what her inspiration was to begin doing art here in Durham and to do bull art.
Jewel: I have been painting since 2005 when I was living in Arizona. Fortunately, and was able to show at galleries and exhibitions throughout Arizona. I lived in Scottsdale, which it is a really big art scene in the US. That area can be quite aloof to new artists and is quite difficult to establish yourself there. It takes a lot of time and work.
When we moved to Durham… The diversity of this community and the support for artists… I really got taken aback! The whole area is infused with art. Local art! Everyone is so amazing. A lot of artists are shy about promoting themselves and find it daunting. In Durham, approaching restaurants, businesses and other venues — even just having a conversation with somebody — the opportunities just appear. Here, it seems as if the community is really ready to give you an opportunity — right away. It’s like this creative cloud or something!
I noticed that this town is so very proud of their heritage with the bull theme. Looking at the art that represented the city was inspiring. My art is very bright and offbeat. I thought about doing a collection of paintings related to bulls. Bull’s Eye, Bull Walrus, etc… When I started painted my first bull, it was such a success and I had so many requests for others — I thought, “this is great! How wonderful is it to take part in this artistic center!”
Since my art is bright and different — it seemed perfect to create them in such an eclectic and cool place. Now, it has become one of my fave subjects to paint. There is such a collective creative vibe here.
You would think that artists would be very competitive. And we are to an extent, but in Durham we’re supportive of each other. Everyone has their own unique art and style. We all support one another and we are excited to see what other artists are doing. By the time I leave a show, a gallery or a place that shows local art, I’m vibrating with excitement.
The art festivals here are fabulous. To be able to talk with other artists as if they lived next door, see their incredible creations and being able to afford great artwork — it’s awesome. At Centerfest, I was thrilled find a painting of Einstein in crazy colors and all around fabulousness. The artist and I talked for 30 minutes and he was hilarious. I skipped away with my piece, so incredibly happy! I know I can be enthusiastic, but the positive energy in this town, the creativeness, the diversity and the energy, which I always use to do my artwork, is so positive, great and amazing here. Different views of life and creative stuff in general.
Without even knowing Jewel had hit upon my next question. By this time our salads had arrived and turned out to be everything we’d hoped for and more! Interestingly as two women who had lived in Scottsdale, Arizona before moving to Durham (at different times on both accounts) ordered the Southwestern salad. Before digging in I asked Jewel what stands out to her the most about Durham.
Jewel: It’s a unique, eclectic, creative and kind town. It has a community vibe to it. It’s hard to describe, but if you live here you get a feeling that people are connected. They support one another and create. It’s a dynamic place. I’ve met people from all over the country as well as Venezuela, Argentina, France, Ireland, England, Italy, Turkey, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal.
Only here in Durham can people from different parts of the country meet in an Irish bar and realize they can speak French to each other. And they do! The people here are kind, diverse, accepting and love the quirkiness of this place.
Side note: Jewel emailed me later that day to tell me she had seen a bunny on a leash as she walked to her car after our interview, ending the email with “only in Durham.”
Moving onto the hard question I ask everyone, I asked “what changes would you like to see for the city of Durham?”
I’d like see it this (referencing the downtown renovation) to expand, so everyone can a part of the vibe of the town. Although, as it is expanding, I don’t want it to turn into a ‘gentrified’ place where it is too expensive to live here. The wonderful thing of this town is that it is a community of all walks of life. That’s what contributes to its unique fabric.
OH! Parking. If there was some kind of parking that would be great. (Now that’s an answer that has been coming up a lot!
It came time to end the interview with my favorite question and perhaps the most loaded question to ask a Bull City resident, “Which bull in the city is your favorite?”
Jewel: When we moved here, life-sized bulls painted by artists were on display all over town. Morgan Imports had 2 intricately painted bulls. IN the store. I absolutely loved them!
When I lived in Arizona, I was asked to do a similar project for an art event creating awareness for organizations such as the Epilepsy Foundation (Van Gogh design), Cystic Fibrosis (roses) and a Botanical Garden (tons of flowers). On life-sized horses! It was this event that started my painting career.
We finished our lunch and shot the bull for a bit longer before going our separate ways. And as happens with every person I interview, we walked away friends in the Bull City. Jewel kept me up to date through email on her latest project, an 4 foot by 4 foot brilliantly bright owl painting. She even asked me for input on naming the owl. I’ve never named an art piece before! What an honor. All because two women fell in love with the Bull City and jumped in to be a part of it, there’s a screamingly bright, fluorescent owl painting with the Persian name of Reza that will soon adorn a wall here in Durham.
For more on Jewel Conway’s are visit JewelConway.com or email Jewel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.