Editor's note: This story appears in the fall 2017 issue of Sound & Country magazine. For more great local stories, you can flip through the publication online here.
Visitors driving north to Westerly, Rhode Island, or south to Pawcatuck, Connecticut won’t be able to miss the massive ocean-blue welcome sign on the walls of the Cottrell Credit Union building. Not just any sign, but the result of two towns, two states, one community working together to bring mural art to New England.
Painted by the talented volunteer artists group known as the Walldogs, “Welcome to Downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck” is the first of thirteen murals to be installed in this project at a once-in-a-lifetime Bricks & Murals Festival from Sept. 13-17. Pawcatuck artist Cam Bortz has been involved with the Walldogs for 20 years and was instrumental in generating the idea for Westerly-Pawcatuck.
What would the purpose of such an endeavor accomplish? According to Bortz, the goals and rewards depend on the community. “There have been some towns that have been successful making use of their artwork, promoting it, continuing with it, and increasing their tourism,” he says. “And a lot of these places are way off the tourist track.”
Another important volunteer in this ambitious project is resident Mary Weiss who traveled to see, firsthand, some Walldogs work in Delavan, Wisconsin, close to where she grew up. “I was bowled over when I saw it. Just magnificent,” she says. “Incredibly beautiful, telling the wonderful story of the small town I’d grown up in. It was very meaningful for me.” Mary believes that the concept of doing the same thing for the two towns of Westerly and Pawcatuck should not only instill pride, but also visitors to the area will remember these murals.
Wendy Brown, president of the Downtown Business Association, and a co-chair for the festival, is openly enthusiastic.
“We are anticipating 150 to 200 artists coming from all over the world to paint the murals,” she says, then nods. “They come on their own dime; we feed them and volunteers give them a place to stay.”
Artists are traveling from Idaho, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, and Germany.
The festival will be unique in that visitors will see the murals painted right before their eyes. The weekend promises a great deal of fun, including more than 15 children’s activities relating to the themes of the murals. A trackless train will run through the park, plus sailing on the pond, music, a food stroll, and a trolley ride from mural site to mural site to watch the murals come alive.
Support for this project is quite evident by the sponsorships already in place. A mural depicting Wilcox Park is sponsored by Professional Planning Group, and the beautiful welcome mural is sponsored by Westerly Hospital. Brown mentions the support of community wall owners. “They’ve taken a leap of faith and agreed to have murals painted on their walls,” she says. “And they think it’s a good idea! They’ve supported us from the beginning.”
Twelve more murals will illustrate the history and culture of these two towns: Italian heritage, train and trolley travel, a high school rivalry, a Westerly Congressional Medal of Honor winner, band and chorus music traditions, historic mills of Pawcatuck, an 1890 side-wheel coastal steamer, the granite industry, traditional blues and Jazz of Westerly, and beautiful Wilcox Park.
Lisa Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president, can’t say enough good things about the festival and the dozens of volunteers determined to make it happen. “They’ve done a fabulous job, and we have so much confidence in its success,” she says. “We wouldn’t have invested money in it if we didn’t believe in it.”