Amid a flurry of swishing paintbrushes, images of a 1920s pagoda-style Wadhams gas station and a sparkling bottle of orange Hi-Ho soda emerge on brick walls in downtown Plymouth, Wis. (pop. 8,445).
“When we come to a town, we complete works of art and tell the town’s story,” says Nancy Bennett, 57, as she paints with 160 other artists and volunteers to complete 21 murals in four days last June in Plymouth.
Along with illustrating the town’s history, the Walldogs—as the old-style artists are called—are preserving the tradition of their namesake who worked like dogs hand painting advertisements on brick walls and barns across America. Fading reminders of their work linger on the sides of old brick buildings that advertise Bull Durham Tobacco, Gold Medal Flour, Old Dutch Cleanser and Coca-Cola.
“It wasn’t considered art in the early 1900s, but was filling a need for advertising,” says Bennett, of Centerville, Iowa (pop. 5,528), who revived the Walldogs movement in 1993. After being asked during a radio interview if she could help refresh an existing mural in Allerton, Iowa (pop. 501), and knowing that the community desired more murals, Bennett invited fellow sign painters to Allerton and arranged for their lodging.
“People adopted an artist and the town provided food for 65 artists,” Bennett says about the successful first gathering. Since then, the Walldogs have painted murals in more than two dozen U.S. towns from coast to coast, promoting the grape heritage and harvest in Lodi, Calif., and the century-plus tradition of Guida’s Dairy in Canaan, Conn.
In Plymouth, the Walldogs’ work is considered both art and advertisement of the town’s claims to fame and heritage.
“We wanted the ‘wow’ factor, for people to literally hit their brakes and jump out and take pictures,” says event chairman Jerry Thompson, 58, about the colorful murals of the Cheese Derby Parade and the founders of Sargento and Sartori cheese companies. “Once people stopped, we wanted them to learn something about Plymouth.”
Perched on scaffolding, the artists visit with townspeople while they work, and invite onlookers to pick up a paintbrush.
“I’m just staying within their black lines,” says Lora Shonts, 58, of Sheboygan, Wis., as she paints a book in a mural depicting the town’s 1915 Andrew Carnegie library.
On the first night of the four-day project, streetlights are turned off so the artists can project and trace images onto the buildings’ exterior walls. “It’s relaxing, and I’m enjoying listening to the crew,” Shonts adds.
Nearby, Ella Roblee, 3, of Elkhart Lake, Wis., dabs blue paint on a mural of the Sheboygan County Fair, then plops down her paintbrush to applaud her masterpiece.
Plymouth residents Jane Kornetzke and Ann Curtiss, both 40, stroll by with their three dogs on leashes.
“I love the murals. This is my third trip downtown to check their progress,” Kornetzke says. When the women notice a Walldogs billboard propped against a building, they park Beso, Laika and Zeedee in front of it and take their photo.
Hundreds of community volunteers prepare for the event by raising money for the murals, rounding up historical photos and arranging housing for the artists. Francha Dallman, 53, heads a brigade of women who arrive daily at 5 a.m. at St. John Lutheran Church to cook and serve breakfast and lunch for their out-of-town guests.
Walldogs coordinator Debbie Karr, 57, directs the delivery of ladders, scaffolding, electrical cords, paint buckets, brushes and 70 gallons of acrylic paint. The Plymouth native, who now lives in Old Town, Fla., attended her first Walldogs meet in 2009 in Pontiac, Ill., and was hooked.
“It was 100 degrees, no rain and I had the time of my life,” Karr says. “For the love of Walldogs, people will shut down their shops and come back each year and rekindle friendships.”
Not only is the Walldogs gathering a cause for community celebration, complete with a dog parade and artists’ reception, it’s also a reunion for the artists and a chance to hone their craft.
“It’s kind of rare to meet people who still have these skills,” says Tina Vines, 27, of Berkeley, Calif., as she works on a mural of a paperboy on his bicycle delivering The Review, published in Plymouth since 1895. “We don’t use any computers, but draw everything by hand and paint by hand.”
Artist FranCisco Vargas, 60, of Fresno, Calif., has attended seven Walldogs gatherings since 2004. “You learn a lot of tricks and techniques from other artists,” he says after adding flourishes to the golden-haired beauty on the 1905-era Plymouth Bottling Co. mural.
Last June’s gathering was especially sweet for artists Dale Manor, 50, of Racine, Wis., and Brenda Salvator, 39, of Pontiac, Ill., who joined their paint-spattered hands in marriage during the Plymouth event.
“She was painting a Coca-Cola mural and I was across the street working on a Route 66 gas station,” Manor says of the romance sparked three years earlier in Pontiac. “We talked a little bit at the meeting and exchanged business cards and began calling each other.”
The Walldogs, who hail from across the United States, Canada and Germany, pay their own travel expenses to each event. Project leaders on each mural are paid, but most artists volunteer their time and talent.
In Plymouth, corporations sponsored some of the $5,000-apiece murals. The town raised money by selling and auctioning rocking chairs, handcrafted by Tim Wieser in the style of the early 1900s Plymouth Rocker Co., a defunct furniture manufacturer. The Walldogs’ original framed paintings of the town’s 21 murals also were auctioned.
A visit from the Walldogs refreshes a town’s appearance and boosts civic pride, says Bob Sear, 63, a Walldog from Pontiac.
“The Walldogs transformed our town,” Sear says. “People started fixing up their buildings, and the whole downtown is just beautiful.”
Even better, the visit inspired Pontiac residents to open the International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum so that the hard work and flair of the old-time sign and mural artists will never completely fade.