Keene’s history is, quite literally, on the walls — 16 of them, to be exact.
Over a four-day period, artists from all over the world converged on the Elm City to paint murals that celebrate people, places and things that make Keene unique. Though the muralists, who call themselves Walldogs, have come and gone, the art they created — and the sense of place it brought — remains.
The muralists designed pieces around community-selected themes. Some, like Kingsbury Corp., the once-prominent toy and machine manufacturer whose former building on Laurel Street remains empty, are more well known. Others, like the mural celebrating Catharine Fiske, a local educator whose academy taught high school girls in the 1800s, may be more obscure, though no less important.
And on Saturday, Alan Rumrill, executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, introduced 15 of the 16 murals in a downtown walking tour that drew a large group of people from the region and elsewhere. The two-hour tour focused on murals around Main Street, leaving out the Keene State College campus mural, which was farther afield on Blake Street. As painters put the finishing touches on the murals, Rumrill shared the stories behind the themes.
Rumrill said the murals have inspired the historical society to offer walking tours and other programming to celebrate the artwork and the themes encapsulated in them.
“It’s an amazing process because we get not just the history, but we also have art ... with people from all over the world coming here to share our history,” he said.
The festival, The Magical History Tour, brought a sense of energy that permeated the downtown Saturday. People wandered from mural to mural, chatting with the artists and admiring the work. The artists, some on imposing scaffolding several feet high, paused to interact with onlookers, answering questions on the process of tracing the murals onto the walls and cheering as large groups of people stopped by.
At the mural celebrating the Abenaki people, who used to live on the land where Keene now stands, muralist Sonny Franks of Atlanta said he invited descendants of the Native American tribe to design and paint part of the mural. He said the artists will leave an empty spot for them to paint after the mural festival is over.
Jacqueline Carr, who recently settled in Keene, was among the scores of locals who spent the day admiring the art. The murals, she said, made the town brighter, but it also put history front and center.
Carr, a history professor at a Vermont college who moved from Burlington to Keene about a year ago, said the murals helped her feel connected to Keene.
“Even if we come from different places, different origins, there are always threads in history, positive threads that pull us together.”
Carr said she spent time at the land conservation mural on 25 West St. Saturday afternoon, admiring the colors and the intricate work it took to create. Watching the murals come to life, she said, was like becoming a part of history in the making.
For Jessica Arrow of Westmoreland, the murals are a window to local heritage. Arrow, a kindergarten teacher at Symonds Elementary School in Keene, said she wants to incorporate more of the stories that make the city unique into her lesson plans.
“Understanding how people over time have contributed to this place and how they’ve made it better fascinates me,” she said. “I grew up here in Westmoreland and I have such a sense of pride in that community. It’s neat.”
As part of the festival Saturday, people with a special connection to the topics depicted were on hand to answer questions at some of the murals. Among them was Bob Perry, 80, a Keene resident who grew up with Jonathan Daniels. From his vantage point on a nearby folding chair, Perry could see the muralists filling in Jonathan Daniels’ form from the iconic photo of him with a young African-American girl. Daniels, a Keene native, Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist, was killed in Alabama in 1965 while shielding a black teenager from gunfire. He has been celebrated in various capacities, including as a martyr of the church, in the decades since his death. But for Perry, Daniels was a friend first.
Perry recalled how he and Daniels created a clubhouse in a crawl space in Daniels’ basement when they were in junior high. They dragged chairs inside and set up an altar. It was an exclusive club, he said, and girls were not allowed. They called it “Ye Loyal Knights of the Royal Order of the Skull and Bone Society,” Perry said, a name Daniels devised.
The mural on St. James Episcopal Church — where Daniels was a member — is a permanent way to honor Daniels and his legacy, he said.
“It’s wonderful to be a part of this and seeing it happen,” he said. “You know, everyone thanks me every now and then for going around talking about Jon ... but (the mural) is out in public view every day.”