In September, after two years of planning, countless volunteer hours and over 170 quarts of donated paint, the Bricks and Murals project in Westerly-Pawcatuck finally culminated in a five-day celebration of community and public art. International mural and sign painting collective The Walldogs created more than a dozen murals to commemorate the history of the area. Now that the scaffolding and drop cloths have been packed away, community organizers reflect on how the stunning, large-scale public art project came together.
How It All Started
“In January 2016 I was just elected president of the Downtown Business Association. Jean Gangier, a town councilman, and Cam Bortz, a local sign painter and Walldog, held a kind of informational meeting. Jean twisted my arm, said, ‘You’ve got to go, because we want to paint murals on the buildings in Westerly.’” Wendy Brown, Owner, The Brown Realty Group, DBA President, BAM President
“When this first started and we said we were going to do murals on buildings, there was a lot of negativity. But what changed a lot of people’s views was when they found out it was going to be about the history of the two towns.” Paul Donahue, Owner, Westerly Paints
“The biggest selling point was that it was about the history of the community. People were having a hard time connecting that until they physically saw it on the walls. Then the lightbulb went off.” Mia Byrnes, Owner, Mia’s Café, BAM Treasurer
Planning the Murals
“We voted on the themes we wanted and then Cam matched them with Walldog artists. We gave the artists a good deal of creative freedom, but we felt comfortable giving them feedback. We provided them with information and historical background, and then the drafts started coming back. With those we could start raising money.” Wendy Brown
“One of our proudest achievements is the hurricane mural. It’s a story of resilience, a community that survives and rebuilds. I was pushing for it. It’s an amazing story about the strength of a community. The committee wrestled with that one a lot, and when the mural finally came out everybody loved it.” Jean Gagnier, Westerly Town Councilman, BAM Vice President
For some, the murals went beyond town history and spoke directly to individuals living in the community.
“The artist was painting [the Westerly Telephone Company mural] and this elderly lady is crying. He says, ‘Are you okay, ma’am?’ She says, ‘That’s my grandfather and I thought the town forgot him.’ It’s kind of a museum in the streets. People in this community are going to know who Dr. John Champlin was and that this was the first place you could make an interstate phone call in the United States.” Jean Gagnier
From September 13-17, the Walldog artists and volunteers put up the murals. Visitors to the multi-day festival came to watch the artists at work and enjoy a downtown food stroll, block party and other events.
“This is the first place on the East Coast where Bricks and Murals was done. For all of the artists, it was like meeting up for a party for four days. They all got to see each other again, which was really cool. And every day the local artists couldn’t wait to talk to the BAM artists. I think they felt very welcome here.” Mia Byrnes
“It was a community coming together. When we had the celebration we had 1,500 people ride the trolley, and 70 percent were local people who hadn’t been downtown in a long time. They were very engaged, and some people told us that they fell in love with this town again.” Jean Gagnier
“Talk about being proud of a community. I’m really proud of this town. We had a number of naysayers who have actually come to us and said, ‘I was wrong.’ Even people with imagination. I didn’t even know how cool it was going to be.” Wendy Brown
“From an economic development perspective, [we’ve seen that] other cities have done these kind of events and it’s increased their tourism. It will attract people to come to this area.” Mia Byrnes
“This is a new way to experience Westerly-Pawcatuck. It’s another reason to be here, both as a local and someone visiting. This is an identifier that we want to hang our hat on. It’s really going to be a driver that we’re going to build on.” Fred Paretta, Owner Weathersby Guild, Restoration Arts, BAM Director of Marketing
“During the run-up, once people started seeing the art, [donations] started exploding. Now we have excess funds, and part of that money is being set aside to maintain the murals in the future. Another portion will be invested into a mobile app that will be a tour, but will also integrate the history of the area and buildings.” Jean Gagnier
“The app will definitely help integrate the millennial generation. To me it will honor the history of this walking museum, but we’re integrating a modern tool for young people.” Mia Byrnes
“People want to go places that are genuine. What we’re providing them is a town where you can have a genuine experience, whether it’s with the environment, the downtown historic area, with art, with food.” Jean Gagnier