Don't miss these pit stops off I-95: Roanoke Rapids, Weldon, Benson, Rocky Mount, Smithfield, Fayetteville, Lumberton, and a few extra! Melvin Morris pauses on the threshold of the
Melvin Morris pauses on the threshold of the main gallery of his new Inner Peace Center for the Arts in downtown Lumberton. The unfinished wood floors are covered in construction dust, but Morris’s deep-brown eyes radiate clarity. Wearing an untucked dress shirt, jeans, and a palpable air of optimism, he gestures to the expansive, soon-to-be-completed room: Instead of tape and mud-covered drywall, he sees colorful art and a space where jazz musicians perform and poets share their voices. “I’m excited about that,” Morris says with a beam that makes it easy to get caught up in his vision. He’d like for visitors to this Robeson County city just south of Fayetteville to “give Lumberton a chance,” he says, “because there’s good art; there’s good culture here.”
Morris is no newcomer to Lumberton’s art scene. For more than four years, he ran Inner Peace out of a smaller building on the east side of town. It was a heady place where adults and children alike met to make and enjoy art, and to share their creations with the community. In late 2019, Morris got the opportunity to relocate the facility to a 15,000-square-foot, 122-year-old building at the corner of Chestnut and Third streets in the heart of Lumberton’s historic downtown.
Then the pandemic hit. Arts programming at Inner Peace stopped. Renovations to the building slowed down. And yet Morris persisted. He worked through 2020 to transform the old structure into a vibrant, community-centered, globally connected nexus for creativity. Soon, rotating murals will cover the building’s east- and south-facing exterior walls. The first mural, completed in May offers “a glimpse of what [patrons] can expect to experience at Inner Peace,” Morris says. He hopes that the murals will become an Instagrammable destination — a “selfie station,” he says — for visiting locals and tourists.
Inner Peace’s new location is remarkable not only because it spans three stories and will be dedicated to both the visual and performing arts in Lumberton, but also because of its history. Erected in the late 1800s, the building has served as a funeral home, an insurance agency, and, beginning in the 1970s, a Kimbrell’s furniture store. After Kimbrell’s left in 2012, years of neglect followed, and the structure was in need of extensive repairs.
Morris was up for the challenge. After all, he thought, the building has character. Remnants of its 40 years as a furniture store include an old freight elevator and picture windows that look out over Chestnut Street. Rich, rust-colored bricks hold countless stories from the past, while newly uncovered windows welcome fresh light into the space: the promise of memories yet to be made within century-old walls.
Walking through the emerging arts center is like witnessing a resurrection — one that’s in step with the broader motto of Rediscover Downtown Lumberton, which declares, “There is no great community without a great downtown.” Morris believes that the arts are key to that sense of community. And to help fulfill his vision of promoting works by amateurs and professionals of all ages and backgrounds — especially pieces by Black and Indigenous artists — he collaborates with community organizations like the Robeson County Arts Council and the nearby public library. “I feel really strongly about the African American voice, and [about] the arts that I want to present to the community,” Morris says.
“I feel really strongly about the African American voice, and [about] the arts that I want to present to the community.”
Art has been a part of Morris’s life for as long as he can remember. He was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. After high school, he joined the United States Marine Corps, where he served for four years, the last three at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. As a Marine, Morris worked in motor transport and mechanics, but he was also tasked with painting USMC-themed murals, including one of a pitbull erupting out of a brick wall — the image of his platoon’s flag. Soon, he met his wife, Sonya, with whom he recently celebrated 25 years of marriage. Together, they made a home in Lumberton and now have a teenage daughter, Ashley, whom Morris calls his “miracle baby” because she weighed only a pound at birth. And then there’s Brix, Morris’s mastiff. “That’s my boy,” he says.
Morris spent a few years toiling in factories after leaving the service, but he couldn’t deny his true calling, and he eventually found himself working part-time in the mental-health sector using the arts to connect with kids. That job laid the groundwork for the summer camp programs that the Inner Peace Center has become known for. With help from the GI Bill, Morris enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he studied painting and sculpture.
“Melvin is a gem in our community, and his luster is getting brighter all the time,” says James Bass, the executive director of UNCP’s Givens Performing Arts Center. Bass considers Morris to be “one of the leading catalysts of what I believe will be a renaissance for downtown Lumberton.”
The light-filled second floor of the Inner Peace Center for the Arts is the first fully renovated part of the new facility. And it’s huge — roughly 5,000 square feet, housing several spaces, including exhibition galleries. There’s also a lounge where visitors can relax, play chess, read books, or take a coffee break while checking out the latest exhibits. As for the large flat-screen TV near the freight elevator, Morris has big plans: He wants to use it to connect with galleries around the country — and perhaps, at some point, the world — allowing patrons a real-time view into other arts spaces.
As Lumberton continues to safely reopen its public spaces, multipurpose rooms at Inner Peace will host painting and wine nights, jazz bands, birthday parties for children and adults, and other activities. Plans for the third floor include a recording studio and nine artist workspaces with large windows and open doors that welcome visitors during the town’s Fourth Friday art walks.
Half a block from Inner Peace is the Lumberton Downtown Plaza, the city’s meeting place and home to festivals like Arts on Elm and Rumba on the Lumber. There, a stage is flanked by a curtain of shade trees, green landscaping, and a fountain. One of The Plaza’s newest additions is a nine-foot-tall metal sculpture that Morris created on commission from Robeson County and the Rediscover Downtown Lumberton organization. The piece has a bright energy: Smiling children and musical notes surround a burst of sculptural water. It’s a beacon for the growth and revitalization that feel as though they’re just on the horizon in this city in transition. “It’s a perfect place for the arts,” Morris says of The Plaza, noting that he can look out the second-floor window of Inner Peace “and see my sculpture right out here. That’s a proud moment for me.”
A few steps from The Plaza is even more art, further evidence of the renaissance that UNCP’s James Bass sees coming. A 40-foot-high mural by Scott Nurkin, owner of Chapel Hill’s The Mural Shop, stretches 100 feet across the side of a building that faces an open, grassy lot. The piece celebrates the natural flora and fauna of Robeson County: a Venus flytrap, lily pads, daylilies, a pine cone, an eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, and a stork standing in the Lumber River. Around the corner, behind the old Carolina Civic Center, is an alleyway filled with art created by local high school students — some abstract, some figurative, all bursting with color.
Morris stands on the corner of Chestnut and Third, taking in the view of his new arts center and reflecting on his vision of what the space will become. “I’ve always felt like the first line of communication was art,” he says. “You see it in cave paintings and drawings. Art is the constant communication skill.” And that’s his vision for Inner Peace — a space where art, in all its forms, remains the constant.