Festival paints Westerly, Pawcatuck history on a canvas of brick

Volunteer mural artists, called 'Walldogs,' including Russell Kelly, left, of Toronto and Ian MacRae of Nova Scotia, Canada, paint a mural on the side of the Knickerbocker Cafe in downtown Westerly, as artists from all over the world descend upon the Westerly-Pawcatuck area to paint more than a dozen unique artworks on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The Bricks & Murals project aims to highlight the history, heritage and culture of Westerly and Pawcatuck through the visual arts and connect two states as one community, creating an exciting destination for locals and visitors alike. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Volunteer mural artists, called "Walldogs," including Russell Kelly, left, of Toronto and Ian MacRae of Nova Scotia, Canada, paint a mural on the side of the Knickerbocker Cafe in downtown Westerly, as artists from all over the world descend upon the Westerly-Pawcatuck area to paint more than a dozen unique artworks on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The Bricks & Murals project aims to highlight the history, heritage and culture of Westerly and Pawcatuck through the visual arts and connect two states as one community, creating an exciting destination for locals and visitors alike. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Unfortunate but true, the history of any given town typically tends to fade from its residents' collective memory as time passes by.

But this weekend, many historical aspects that have shaped Westerly and Pawcatuck, ranging from a once-booming granite industry to steamships and trolley lines, are being brought back to life for all to see — in the form of wall murals.

On Thursday morning, the rudimentary designs of these murals were taking shape as painters and muralists, situated on stands or boom-lifts, sketched out preliminary stencils for the predesigned murals. Their efforts are all in the name of the Bricks & Murals Festival, which began Wednesday night and will take place through Sunday.

Fourteen murals will be painted on various walls throughout downtown Westerly and Pawcatuck, accompanied by live music and other festivities. Onlookers are invited to witness the unfolding murals in real time.

“Westerly has some unique features, it has a great deal of history, remarkable architecture, a gorgeous park and library, a vibrant arts community and a strong cultural community,” said Cam Bortz, the brainchild behind the festival. “There was a lot to work with to bring this festival alive, and not only that, the community in Westerly is very rooted and very knowledgeable and proud of its history, and that’s important when doing these festivals.”

The event was brought in part by two groups — the Bricks & Murals Committee formed two years ago with representatives from both towns — and the Walldogs, an international group of volunteers consisting of professional sign painters and mural artists who come together to take part in similar happenings every year. For this weekend’s festival, approximately 120 artists have traveled from around the globe to attend.

Walldog Phil Ghi of Canaan was out on Canal Street taking a break in a makeshift trailer he’d built specifically for the festival. As the lead organizer of a mural depicting a steamship, he hoped to bring to life a point in time when the vessels would bring passengers from New London and Westerly to Block Island.

Depicting these historical events, in his opinion, is fascinating.

“I would never have known that there was a granite company in Westerly, or that someone had been awarded the medal of honor, or of the football rivalry between (Stonington and Westerly high schools.) With these murals, people will be able to drive through town and connect with some historical aspect that happened here,” Ghi said. “I think today we all pine for something a little old-school, and these murals, and the painting itself, remembers the days that have gone by.”

The 14 murals are generally within walking distance of one another, though finding all of them could be a feat. Some are easy to spot, such as the few situated just off Mechanic Street, while others are more hidden farther up Canal Street.

To make the public artworks easier to find, the Bricks & Murals Committee has created a map of where each one is placed on both sides of the river.

The committee, besides coordinating the towns' approvals for the festival, along with seeing that certain zoning changes were passed, also was tasked to research and choose which historical elements to depict.

“Part of the fun in organizing the event has been coming up with the ideas for each mural,” Bortz said. “I’m very happy to see the football rivalry being commemorated, for example. It is one of the oldest continual football games in the country.” The game dates back to 1911.

Another story being depicted, he explains, involves the granite industry of Westerly, which once was a large part of the town’s economy. Granite from the Westerly quarry, which stopped operating in the 1950s, was used for monuments, municipal buildings and cemeteries throughout the United States — perhaps most notably, the Georgia State Capitol was built from this granite.

“It’s things like that that are fascinating to remember and learn about. A big part of what the whole Walldog movement has been about is to essentially remind people of where they are, what happened there and who is from there and not to take it all for granted,” Bortz said.

On a brick wall along the side of C.C. O’Brien’s Irish sports bar, a mural depicting the high school football rivalry was starting to take form Thursday. Boston-based sign artists Meredith Kasabia and her husband, Josh Luke, stood on scaffolds approximately 15 feet from the ground, sketching the mural that they had designed for the festival.

“We looked at a lot of early 20th-century sports posters and memorabilia to set the style for this mural. I wanted to reflect the time in which the rivalry began,” she said. “For us, painting these historically inspired murals ties in perfectly with painting. Painting was the only way to create a sign up until the 1960s. You could print all of these designs out onto advertisements, but it wouldn’t have the same connection to the past as paint does. That’s what makes these festivals special.”

Neither town was required to pay for the festival. The $160,000 needed for supplies and food for the artists over the weekend has been almost completely raised through fundraisers and private donations, Bortz said. By Thursday, $130,000 had been raised.

“It doesn’t happen very often when two towns come together to do such a thing — it’s a very special thing,” Bortz said. “This is a way to look back and remind people that no town is completely insignificant. I think that’s an important thing to remember.”

m.biekert@theday.com

Alicia Rheal, top left, of Madison, Wis., paints Dr. Hohn Chaplin, founder of the direct dial phone system, part of the Westerly Telephone Company mural along Canal Street in Westerly on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Fellow artist Emida Roller, also of Madison, Wis., also contributes to the mural. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Alicia Rheal, top left, of Madison, Wis., paints Dr. Hohn Chaplin, founder of the direct dial phone system, part of the Westerly Telephone Company mural along Canal Street in Westerly on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Fellow artist Emida Roller, also of Madison, Wis., also contributes to the mural. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Themes and locations of murals

Welcome — 87A Main St. (already painted)

Historic mills — Working Mens Club, 16 Historic St.

Football rivalry — C.C. O'Brien's, 8 Mechanic St.

Hurricane of 1938 — Irish Rose Tattoo, 29 Broad St.

Pawcatuck River — Cat's Modern Barber, 38 W Broad St.

Westerly band and chorus — Washington Trust Community Skating Center, 61 Main St.

Italian heritage — Avie's Ski Sports, 100 Main St.

Granite industry — Cheech's Alley, 35 High St.

Wilcox Park — 82 High St.

Telephone exchange — 84 Tavern on Canal, 15 Canal St.

Ships and ferries — Martin House, 10 Canal St.

Beach trolleys — Hall Building, 21 Canal St.

Railroad — Agway, 31 Friendship St.

Blues — The Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave.

Children's mural — Wall behind Micheli's Furniture, 19 High St.  

Additional information and maps of the festival can be found at www.bricksandmurals.org.

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