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The Renaissance Man

Painting the town at a gallop

By Jenna Biter

Photographs by John Gessner

    Early morning grays glom onto Southern Pines like a dull watercolor. Around a corner, at the foot of the town, where Broad Street’s one-ways become less sure of themselves, brushstrokes of fiery orange, bronze and manganese pierce through the fog.

Applied with roller brushes and aerosol cans, the warm colors explode from a horse’s flank in the mural at Harbour Place. Beneath a soaring hawk, the stallion sprints for the edge of his 40-foot pasture but never closes the gap. Since Nick Napoletano completed the composition — before fall’s green turned winter brown — the horse has galloped for the future but stays forever in the present, immortalized on concrete block.

Last November, when Napoletano was still summoning the mural from paint cans and brushes, he would break for lunch just after noon. Abandoning the scissor lift, the 30-something artist explained his composition over a hamburger and a ginger beer. “It’s based off the first stop motion, which is a horse running,” he said, referring to Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century version of a GIF. “And it’s playing with the idea of time.”

Between bites, and in less than a sentence, Napoletano speeds through a theory on time, connecting the dots between something like Einstein’s relativity, quantum physics, and his mural in the Sandhills.

“I am not trying to pigeonhole viewers into the experience,” he said. “Some people just want to see horses, and that’s beautiful, too.”


Back up in the air at Harbour Place, Napoletano secured a hot pink respirator over his mouth, preparing to re-enter his kaleidoscopic world. He maneuvered the scissor lift, ascending to an uncharted block. “Stairway to Heaven” blared from the portable speaker beside him.

Next. Napoletano hit the forward arrow.

“How do you turn off Zeppelin?” Steve Harbour, an owner of the plaza, yelled from below.

Napoletano pulled down his respirator. “This isn’t your show,” said the voice from above, grinning like the kid who had just scribbled on the living room wall.

Tool came on, and the artist thrummed his fingers on the lift’s handrail. His even rhythm and a well-worn tour T-shirt gave away a musical history. He’d been a drummer, playing in bands since he was 12. But later, music took a backseat to an interest in architecture.

“I really wanted to build buildings — and now I paint them.” Napoletano said. “Growing up, my grandmother owned a gallery and, as little kids, we used to fiddle around with watercolors and what have you, but I didn’t take it seriously.”


It was a high school art teacher who convinced Napoletano to create a portfolio over the summer after junior year. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s roll the dice and see if we can do this,’” Napoletano said.

While studying at the University of Hartford, barely a morning’s commute away from his hometown of Colchester, Connecticut, he collected credits in painting, design and sculpture, collaging them together into an unconventional Bachelor of Fine Arts.

With the quick chh of an offhand spray — as if he understood brevity was the key to the beauty that came from his hands — Napoletano hopped down from the lift and backpedaled to size up his colossus. “We’re going to mood-up that corner,” he said mostly to himself, motioning in a general direction before climbing back to work.

“My style has shifted, and I feel like I’m a little bit manic, and I get bored really easily,” Napoletano said, as if trying on the theory. “Not actually manic, but I have a tendency to want to see if I can do new things.

“When I lived in Italy, I was seeing all the art there and learned that Michelangelo and all these brilliant minds were really young when they were making their paintings and sculptures,” he said. A deep breath transports him in place and time, back to a young man asking a young man’s question. “I’m 19, 20 years old. If I can’t paint like them at this age, and we have more technology, then what the hell am I doing?”


In an attempt to touch the hem of the Italian masters, Napoletano asked his then-girlfriend to teach him how to paint with oils and poured money into a canvas the size of a billboard.

“And that was all the money I had,” he said with his eyebrows raised, taken aback by his naivete until he remembered he already knew the ending. “I took the painting, shipped it out to Michigan to a gallery and, within two weeks, it sold and gave me the money to start my career.”

But galleries and private collections were only a way station for Napoletano. He supersized his art, upgrading to public works large enough for the gods but meant to be viewed by the masses. With each surface, he experiments with mediums, tools and composition, an aerosol version of the 30-something artist who stared at the ceiling of a chapel in the 1500s. “So then, it was like, ‘OK, can I teach myself how to paint with spray cans?’”

Napoletano has finished dozens of murals, combining spray and exterior paints into layers, from his first commission in Athens, Georgia, to the hyperrealist portraits and bodies in motion that dance across Charlotte and Denver, to a blue eye in central Pennsylvania so big it could pierce the heavens.

“Every year or two, I get bored and frustrated and need to do something else,” Napoletano said. “I want to build this giant stained-glass piece, so I’m trying to put that out into the ether. I feel like if I’m not in the unknown, then it’s not worth it, right?”  PS

View Nick Napoletano’s artwork at

Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at