The Walldogs have arrived in Keene.
In an event nearly two years in the making, the collective of sign painters and muralists began creating the Magical History Tour Wednesday, a series of 16 vintage-themed murals chronicling important pieces of the Elm City’s past.
Under filtered sun Wednesday afternoon, artists could be seen wandering around downtown Keene, recognizable by the bright orange Magical History Tour lanyards around their necks. Down alleys and side streets, scaffolding framed walls primed with white paint, fresh canvases for the kickoff of the mural festival set to unfold over the coming days.
The festivities kicked off in the evening, when the painters gathered to trace their mural designs — ranging from runner Clarence DeMar to the Abenaki Native American tribe to land conservation in Keene — by projected light.
Some of the artists, such as Scott “Cornbread” Lindley of Mt. Pulaski, Ill., are seasoned participants in the traveling event. Lindley said he’s been painting with the Walldogs since 2006.
“Every town is different, so the town kind of makes up the general feel of the event,” Lindley said. “And so, each one of them’s unique; each one of them has their own flavor.”
This year, he designed a mural focused on Dr. Albert Johnston, an African-American doctor who, along with his family, passed as white for years. Their story became the 1949 film “Lost Boundaries” — a film Lindley recalls watching with his grandmother, making the experience that much more exciting.
The first time he participated in a Walldogs festival, he initially wasn’t impressed by the community that had been chosen as that year’s host, he said. But being a part of the event changed his mind.
“Then when I was rolling out of town, I thought, ‘Wow, what a great place.’ And then I realized that’s because of the murals and because of the stories people told us that associated with those murals,” he said.
For Lili Payne of Minneapolis, Minn., this is the third year participating in a Walldogs festival and the first time designing one of the displays. She and Scott Gerwitz of Chicago, who is participating for the second time this year, are co-leading the painting of a mural representing the Ashuelot River, they said.
As scenic artists by trade, participating in Walldogs festivals has been an opportunity to pick up new skills unique to sign painting, the artists noted.
“I paint more watercolor, so things are like, you start light and you slowly develop it and layer it until it starts to get dark,” Gerwitz said. “Where when you’re doing sign work outside, you can’t really water paint because it would just run down the building.”
Payne chose an impressionistic style for the mural, with the river framed by a curtain being pulled back to reveal the scene.
“It’s nature, right? It’s a river, so it wasn’t something like a train or a building or a business. So I wanted to do something that was a little out of the ordinary from the Walldogs style,” she said. “So then I moved it to vintage or turn-of-the century theater curtains.”
For some artists, the week is also a family affair. Wade Lambrigtsen brought his wife and two kids with him from Menomonie, Wis., to help paint the mural he’s co-leading with fellow Wisconsin artist Alicia Rheal, which will represent the history of baseball in Keene.
Lambrigtsen said he first got involved with the Walldogs in 2014 as a way to network with other sign artists. Since then, what he’s enjoyed most is being able to connect with the communities he’s traveled to, he said.
“That’s the best part: talking to the local people and learning about the town and seeing how it relates to everybody and everything around,” Lambrigtsen said.
And being a Walldog offers the opportunity to discover otherwise hidden corners of the country, Payne noted.
“Otherwise, I would never have a reason to come here, probably. But it’s nice to know that things happened, things were interesting, there’s a history and all of these events and people,” Payne said. “I love learning about those things, and it’s really nice to do it through images like this.”
The festival continues through the weekend with mural painting, food trucks, live music, family activities and more. Additional information, including a full schedule of events, is available at walldogsinkeene.com.