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People of Duke Arts: Dare Coulter

Published By Casey Pettiford / published on: November 20, 2018

Get to know Dare Coulter, a Triangle-based artist, sculptor, and muralist who combines distinct aspects of color, culture, and creativity to re-imagine communities of color in joyous and powerful spaces. "The reason that I paint what I paint is that I need people to be in it. It has to be people."

A photo of a black woman with dreads smiling and wearing a blue shirt.

An Honorary Visiting Artist at Duke

Dare Coulter is a Georgia-born artist, sculptor, and muralist who was raised in Virginia and currently resides in the Triangle. This past October, Coulter made an exterior wall at the Duke Arts Annex her studio as she began work on a vibrant new mural. Coulter was inspired by the Durham, NC, painter Ernie Barnes’ Sugar Shack and Durham’s annual Black August in the Park event. Previously, Coulter completed her first permanent outdoor mural on the back of the historic Boylan-Pearce building in Raleigh and was selected for the Jo Ann Williams Artist Fellowship for her collaborative work in the Black on Black Project. Coulter has a BA in Art & Design from North Carolina State University.

Read on to meet Dare through an interview by Creative Arts Student Team Member Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020).

Getting to Know Dare Coulter

A picture of a blue recycling bin with a green and plaid shirt next to some spray cans.
Some of Dare's art supplies for her mural. Photo by Ilona Stanback.

Casey Pettiford: How have your childhood experiences and the various places you have lived influenced your art career?

Dare Coulter: The most influential thing was my mom raising me and my sisters as a single parent. A lot of that has to do with who I am as a person, with themes in my artwork, and with how I live my life. Also, I was really into artistic stuff and nature when I was a kid. In D.C., you have people of all types there and it’s beautiful; in Clayton, we went from the Smithsonian Museums and National Mall to cow fields and a homogeneous place, so I missed the variety in the experiences and the people I had in D.C. But if I hadn’t been in Clayton, I wouldn’t have met my neighbor, April May. I was talking to her about my college plans to be a marine biologist, but then she said, “Well, are you going to apply to State? It has one of the best graphic design programs in the nation.” I submitted two weeks before the deadline; I was selected to come back to interviews and I made it.”

CP: What interested you in working with murals?

DC: Sculpting is actually what I think I am best at, but I also love murals. I paint murals because of the murals I’ve seen in Richmond, VA, like those by Etam Cru. My heart beats for their artwork. Their colors are different with an element of realism. The reason that I paint what I paint is because I need people to be in it. It has to be people. It can’t be something else and it can’t be abstract.

"I think to a certain extent people feel that it's somehow tacky for everything to be about happiness."

A woman smiles as she wears a loose green and plaid shirt, a black undershirt, jeans, and some blue gloves as she walks past her artwork.
Dare smiling as she starts painting another section of her mural. Photo by Ilona Stanback.

CP: What themes and colors are consistent in your work?

DC: People of color are important. Joy is really important, too. I also like the color yellow and at one point, I thought: Maybe I’ll just make my entire wardrobe yellow. And why not? You’re allowed to do things that make you happy, right? Why not make things that make other people feel good, too?

CP: How did you develop the concept for this particular mural?

DC: Black joy and people of color for sure, but also Ernie Barnes’ Sugar Shack and Black August in the Park. Watching everybody dance at Black August in the Park moved something in my soul. Sugar Shack also means so much to me and other people because it doesn’t just show how dancing has this big tie to black culture, but on a deeper level, it recognizes that black people once danced to save themselves at a certain point in time. Rhythm is a part of who we are.

CP: How do other art forms like music influence your creative message?

DC: I listen to music all of the time. I know that it makes me feel happy to dance. I can’t dance, but I’m happy to do it. Sometimes, there’s this nervousness that you get before you do stuff, and through the dancing in my artwork, I don’t want people to forget that it’s worth a moment of pushing through feelings of strangeness sometimes to fight for your joy. And sometimes, it’s not that dance speaks to everyone, and this picture may not speak to everyone. I want people to feel good and to have these joyous experiences when they engage with my work—to leave with something that feels good.

Woman in blue gloves and with dreads holds her hand behind her head as she stretches and looks at a pink mural on the wall in front of her.
Dare steps back to look at her progress on the mural. Photo by Ilona Stanback.

“I ultimately want this mural to reflect the whole idea of the human experience as being varied but valid in different and unique ways.”

CP: Can you describe some of the figures in your mural and their symbolic significance?

DC: There will be people from Black August in the Park, specifically lindy hop dancers from Durham. There will also be a couple in the front of the mural and a spotlight on them because the couple has fallen in love on the dance floor. On one side of the mural, there’s a jazz man playing a banjo and he’s got one leg stretched out—it’s super big. I’m also using pinks and dark blue, and other images like music notes and possibly fireflies.

CP: What is your final vision for the mural as you finish working on it?

DC: The plan is for everyone to be able to paint on the mural once the beginning stages are complete. At that point, the hope is that there is at least one figure that people can paint on and I would love for people to be a part of this. There have been challenges with the weather, but I’m cool with it. I think for all the trips it’s gonna take to make this actually happen, it’ll be so worth it. I ultimately want this mural to reflect the whole idea of the human experience as being varied but valid in different and unique ways.

Dare Coulter will return to the Duke Art Annex to complete her mural in the spring—stay tuned!


Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020) is majoring in International Comparative Studies with a focus on Latin America. Upon graduation, she plans to use her love of Spanish and global cultures to promote the performing arts globally and to incorporate her interests in theater, writing, and mixed media to create opportunities for minority communities to share their diverse stories. Casey is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).