Town Shares History in Murals

American Artisans, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on October 8, 2000

To know Lake Placid, Fla., just take in the paintings.

Deep in the heart of south-central Florida lies the caladium capital of the world, Lake Placid, which grows more than 95 percent of the worlds supply of this popular outdoor foliage plant with its colorful, variegated leaves.

But a walk through the center of town is what leaves the most lasting impression, as, one by one, you come upon 31 prominent, colorful murals painted on the sides of downtown businesses. Artists began creating these paintings in the early 1990s to depict the towns history: The Jewels of Highlands County illustrates the 27 freshwater lakes surrounding Lake Placid; Lake Placid Drug Store honors the towns oldest pharmacy; The Lost Bear Cub and Sandhill CranesDawn Patrol pay tribute to the areas wildlife.

Lake Placid became a mural city (a practice slowly gaining favor across the country) in a roundabout way. Residents Bob and Harriet Porter were touring North America 10 years ago and stopped in Chemainus, British Columbia, which bills itself as the little town that did. What they found was a once-dying community whose tourism was rejuvenated by murals illustrating the towns history. Because our town could face a similar fate if something wasnt done, we decided to suggest this approach in Lake Placid, Harriet Porter says. Although met with skepticism at first, the project slowly came to life.

The Porters founded the Lake Placid Mural Society in 1992. It consists of a board of directors (Bob Porter is president and the ideas man) and contributing members who meet monthly to discuss future projects and maintenance on existing murals. As board secretary, Harriets talents ensure that it runs smoothly.

The first mural, Tea at Southwinds, located on the Caladium Arts & Crafts Co-op building, depicts the 1940s glory days of Lake Placid, where the rich and famous came to play. It was painted free of charge by artist Tom Freeman, the Artist Laureate of Lake Placid, because he was so captivated by the concept.

Another, Cracker Trail Cattle Drive, created by award-winning artist Keith Goodson of Avon Park, Fla., pays homage to the pioneers who battled insects, heat, and life-threatening lightning storms to drive their cattle to market. In a clever marketing coup, local cattlemen were offered the opportunity to buy a cow in the mural and have their actual brand painted on that cow. The strategy funded the entire cost of this impressive mural, which measures 175 feet by 30 feet and adorns the side of the Winn Dixie grocery store. Motion-activated sounds of cattle mooing greet pedestrians.

Tampa artist John Gutcher created five of the murals. I was doing a seminar in Lake Placid on portrait painting, and one of my students introduced me to Bob Porter. It snowballed from there, he says. His mural A Family Feeding A Family honors the Florida Scrub Jaya friendly, endangered bird that will beg for peanuts by perching on your hand, head, or shoulder.

The Porters are modest about their contribution to the towns growth and its greatly increased popularity as a tourist destination. Its the town working together, from the service organizations to the Chamber of Commerce and its beautification programs, Harriet says. Our murals are only a small part of this process.

Others give more credit to the paintings. Its a great financial impact to my business, says Shawn Larkin, owner of Main Street America restaurant. The overall town beautification has soared as a result of these murals, inspiring more people to fix up their own businesses.

Due to the towns collaborative efforts, Lake Placid was named Floridas Outstanding Rural Community in both 1995 and 1996.

Inspired, several Florida cities have recently implemented their own mural programs, including Lake Wales, Punta Gorda, Milton, and Palatka.

Art is a powerful thing.