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Liquor salesman turned chalk artist Austin Bagwell takes his creativity to the sidewalk
Think back to this past spring—you’re taking a fresh-air break from endless Zoom meetings or online classes and as you step onto your sidewalk, you find Elsa from “Frozen” or the cast of “Sesame Street” under your feet. If you’re a Wendell resident, those fanciful characters were brought to life in chalk by Austin Bagwell, owner of AB Chalk Designs.
Bagwell’s career in chalk began in earnest in 2013, when he created a chalk welcome sign for his wedding at the Stockroom in downtown Raleigh. Not long after, the NC State alum was creating chalk murals for weddings on a near-weekly basis and decided to hang out a shingle, create a website and make AB Chalk Designs a legit side hustle.
“Creativity has always been in my family,” Bagwell says, noting that his mother majored in art and his sister works as a graphic designer. “I doodled a lot and drew a lot, and then this opportunity came up.”
Even while creating up to 60 chalk designs a year for weddings, Bagwell worked full-time in liquor and spirit sales. The Gastonia native had been working for Charleston-based Dixie Vodka for about a year when the pandemic hit, but when the brand downsized a third of its workforce, his creative outlet became his main gig.
Bagwell turned to his 3-year-old daughter Olivia for inspiration. He chalked a hopscotch board on the sidewalk in front of his house, complete with Poppy and Branch from “Trolls” peeking out from behind. His wife Katie suggested he post a picture to the Wendell Falls neighborhood Facebook group, and the likes poured in (as did the commissions). Soon Bagwell was brightening sidewalks all over the neighborhood, drawing everything from Barbie to David Bowie. “The support was overwhelming,” he says.
But it’s not just the neighborhood that’s shown its appreciation of Bagwell’s work—he’s chalked designs all over the Triangle and even as far away as Greenville, where he drew a kangaroo with boxing gloves for an Outback Steakhouse franchise that was looking to drum up takeout and curbside business.
Birthdays and anniversaries saw Minnie Mouse and NC State’s Mr. Wuf while Easter bunnies dominated the month of April. May the 4th featured Baby Yoda and June brought high school and graduation announcements. All told, Bagwell has created nearly 200 chalk-art drawings since the pandemic began.
The chalk game is not without its difficulties, however, as supply-and-demand problems plagued some of Bagwell’s early efforts. Crayola’s 16-pack of colored chalk, which he says used to go for six or seven bucks on Amazon, was suddenly priced at $40. “I drove all over,” Bagwell says, but after getting stiffed on a pre-purchased pickup order at Walmart, he turned to his neighbors. A few social media posts helped with supply issues, and Bagwell says he even drove to Clayton to pick up a few pieces of much-needed black chalk from someone who heard about his plight.
Having lived in Wendell Falls since the fall of 2016, Bagwell recognized the unique intersection of timing and place, as the master-planned community has families and children galore. Working from home kept folks in and near their houses, while a mild North Carolina spring allowed them numerous opportunities to get outside. Family walks turned into games of find-the-chalk-design and neighborhood social media feeds proliferated with his hand-drawn cartoon characters and college mascots. “In our neighborhood, people are out walking every day, they’re exercising,” he says. “They see me drawing, they see it on social media. It’s awesome.”
As for Bagwell’s next move? “I think it’ll stick around,” he says of the sidewalk chalk gig. “It’s a nice alternative to yard signs, and as sports and weddings start up again, people will be looking for a unique way to celebrate, something more personalized.”
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