Mayanthi Jayawardena. Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I grew up in the Midwest in Iowa and Minnesota. I moved to North Carolina as I started my public health journey—I got my master’s in public health and did sexual violence prevention work for about nine years. I did that at the community level and then ended in higher education.

After doing that for so long it eventually began to take an emotional toll on me and I realized that I needed to find other ways to navigate the intense work. I started turning to art to heal and process—and from there, people started resonating with the work that I was creating, and all of the sudden I started seeing my life pivot in that direction. I started talking about my experiences as a woman—and my experiences being a Sri Lankan woman and a second-generation immigrant. It kept flowing through me through artwork in various forms.

What got you interested in murals as a medium and what was your first mural?

I’ve always loved painting, and when the pandemic hit it was actually my boyfriend who asked if I’d ever consider painting on a larger scale, like on large walls. When he first asked, I immediately said no.

But as I started thinking about it more, he really planted the seed and I eventually started reaching out to people. One of the first people I reached out to was Element Gastropub in Raleigh. They had just opened and were looking for a mural. I ended up painting on three of their walls—and I got the bug! It was an amazing experience to paint on such a large canvas, and it’s something that I crave now. I want to paint on every single wall that I can.

How did the “Lotus Rising” piece come to be?

I had the idea of doing something for Women’s History Month last year. I found the Orange County Arts Commission grant. I felt like this was the perfect home for this kind of project, and I was so grateful when I received the grant. I wanted to do something that celebrated women in the community and women in general.

It’s been a tough few years for women, and I didn’t want to focus on the negative things that have been in the media but instead focus on the beauty of what being a woman means to me and how it’s impacted my life. I’ve been blessed with absolutely incredible women who have been pillars of strength, even just within my family. I was like, “Let’s create more spaces where that positive message exists.”

I want everyone who walks by to be able to pull something positive from the mural in whatever way they want.

What’s the significance of the lotus flower in the mural?

Lotus flowers grow in swamps and muddy areas but become some of the most beautiful flowers in the world. I feel like women experience that as well. We are so resilient and strong. And for me, as a Sri Lankan, lotus flowers are our national flower—so there’s a bit of me painted in there as well.

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