Somebody Let the Walldogs Out

The Knickerbocker Express rolls into the Westerly station on a railroad made of piano keys. Ahead of the station, a silhouette of a man carries his guitar to a jazz club. Whatever song he’ll play, we won’t get to hear.

The musically themed mural tells the story of The Knickerbocker Cafe, the blues club built in Westerly in 1933, after the end of Prohibition. It’s one of 14 murals scheduled to be painted in Westerly, Rhode Island, and Stonington, Connecticut, between September 13 and 17 as part of the Bricks and Murals Festival. The painting of the mural, which will run alongside The Knickerbocker at 33 Railroad Ave, is being led by Sonny Franks of Georgia. Franks is a “Walldog,” who describe themselves as a group of “highly skilled sign painters and mural artists from all over the globe.”

And this month, the Walldogs will descend on New England.

“We’re painting history,” says Fred Peretta, marketing co-chair of Bricks and Murals. “These things don’t come around. These murals are a 25-year commitment; the maintenance program on them is 25 years. I don’t know if this is the most-ever (murals) done in five days or not in the Northeast, but it’s a huge deal.”

For the Walldogs, it’s the first time the group has embarked on a two-state, two-town project. “It might not happen around here for another 20 years,” says Peretta. “They mostly stay in the Midwest.”

It’s their largest-scaled project in the region to date. Their last (and only) Walldogs New England meet-up was in 2005 and decidedly smaller in scope: murals showcasing the four seasons along an outside wall of Connecticut’s Canaan Market. Bricks and Murals is their first, full Northeast festival.

Bricks and Murals estimates hundreds of artists, in collaboration with local artists, will travel to paint the story of the communities of Westerly and Stonington. Beyond the Knickerbocker Express, other murals are dedicated to the impact of the Hurricane of 1938; a storm that caused $308 million in damages — the equivalent of $5.1 billion, adjusted to 2016 dollars. Another mural stands in dedication to the Westerly Band, established in 1852, and the longest, non-military musical organization in continuous service in the country. John Tedeschi, art director at Westerly High School, is project-leading students on a mural showcasing the region’s Italian heritage.

Beyond acting as painters, Westerly High School actually ends up on the other side of the brush. The Westerly Bulldogs long-running rivalry with the Stonington Bears is one of America’s oldest football rivalries — and the subject of the mural at 8 Mechanic St. The two schools have been feuding since a 1911 Thanksgiving game.

Besides the spectacle of Westerly-Pawcatuk being transformed into a downtown-sized canvas for five days, numerous events are planned to keep spectators from, well, watching paint dry. Each evening ends with live music and on September 14, there will be a block party and food stroll. There’s also a dedicated wall where children can sign up to paint murals of their own.

According to Peretta, Walldog Cam Bortz was the “key driver” in bringing the festival to our region. “He’s been a Walldog for 20 years,” says Peretta. “He lives here. He’s a Stonington resident. He’s bringing it home.”

For a volunteer-driven art project of its scale, there are goals and outcomes beyond beautification and historical preservation of a community’s stories.

“Westerly and Pawcatuk, Stonington, are already well known for their beaches and restaurants,” says Peretta. “Adding a large amount of art to everything will add a new dimension to the town. The two towns are connected, the roads run into each other. You can’t tell where you are. We’re hoping for some economic development. We want downtown Westerly and downtown Stonington to be areas to come to, so when you’re visiting southern Rhode Island and the northeast shores of Connecticut, people see the murals and spend time in downtown.”