by Karen Koerner
The Bricks and Murals Festival Sept. 13-17 on the streets and alleys of downtown Westerly, RI and Pawcatuck united communities. The 15 colorful and cultural murals that resulted from the Festival depicted the two communities in two states as one. It also reunited Walldogs from around the world who nurture traditional hand-painted sign and mural techniques.
Murals depicted historic and cultural aspects of Westerly and Pawcatuck that give the unique community its character. From a Pawcatuck River mural designed by internationally-known Walldog Anat Ronen, to illustrations of the industries, mills, trains and trolleys that connected Westerly and Pawcatuck to the world, to the rowdy and still-relevant Stonington vs Westerly High School Football Rivalry, topics resonate with residents.
Tucked in an alley next to Mel’s Downtown Creamery in Pawcatuck, the tallest of the 15 murals was coming to life Sept.14. It depicts a determined worker rebuilding after the devastating Hurricane of 1938. Lifelong Stonington resident Ann Mudge recalled the family stories of the day the killer storm appeared from nowhere and swept away the life of the grandmother she never knew.
Ann explained that her grandmother, Nellie Poutray, was enjoying Misquamicut Beach with friends Sept. 21, 1938 when the unexpected storm approached. “They were at a church picnic,” Ann related. The minister drove to the beach to see if his parishioners wanted a ride home. They said no. He drove away just before the women were swept into the ocean. “There was a tidal surge. If it hadn’t been for the tidal surge they would have got out of there,” Ann said as she watched the Walldogs paint the mural depicting the destruction of that day and reconstruction.
About 100 Walldogs participated in the Bricks and Murals Festival, a first for New England. Walldogs converge each year on towns that arrange for walls and themes. Each mural had a paid project leader who designed and directed painting of the mural by volunteer Walldogs. Cameron “Cam” Bortz, a local sign painter and long-time Walldog, coordinated the Walldogs. A committee of business and civic leaders headed by Wendy Brown, owner, Brown Group Real Estate, coordinated logistics.
Walldogs spend only a few days together each year during painting festivals, but they are a close group. What Cam calls, “my tribe.”
Westerly Council Member Jean Gaugnier worked with Cam early on to launch the Bricks and Murals Festival. Jean and Lisa Konicki, Executive Director, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, hope the murals will add one more reason for tourists to come to Westerly Pawcatuck.
Walldog Jay Robert Allen said the Walldogs felt honored to be part of the community for a short time, and to leave public art of value. “All we’re doing is holding a mirror up to you, Westerly and Pawcatuck. Look at yourselves.”