Walk anywhere in downtown Keene and you will see Peter Poanessa’s art. His work graces many of Main Street’s storefronts: Thai Garden, The Toadstool Bookshop, In the Company of Flowers, The Works.
The Elm City native views the heart of Keene as an ever-evolving gallery. Piece by piece, he transformed the downtown with unique signs, which stand out in their design, originality and craftsmanship.
But recently, Poanessa took a break from a piecemeal approach to change the town in one fell swoop: He and other volunteers brought the recent Walldogs mural festival to Keene, a four-day painting extravaganza that left 16 murals in its wake, each celebrating a person or a thing that makes the Elm City unique. There was a mural that honored civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels. Another celebrated the Ashuelot River. Yet another commemorated land conservation.
Organizers involved the Keene community at every step of the way. Residents could vote on their favorite themes out of a list of 30, narrowing the final list by roughly half. And as artists painted, they interacted with onlookers, answering questions and even inviting some to help paint. Organizers also traced a “Wall Pup” community garden mural that residents painted.
The spirit of the festival, Poanessa said, is about connection and a sense of place.
Like many of the muralists brought to Keene in June, Poanessa, who is receiving this year’s Ewing Arts Award for folk traditional art, is a craftsman with a passion for design. He selected the artists carefully, matching each designer with a theme he thought best suited him or her.
“After a lifetime of making signs and being influenced by people’s work, it was like you got a chance to have the World Series in your town and you’re a baseball fanatic and you got to pick all of your favorite players,” he said.
It was the combination of Poanessa’s two ventures: expert sign making and the Walldogs festival that led Richard Whitney, an artist from Stoddard and a 2015 Ewing Arts Award recipient, to realize that Poanessa deserves to be nominated for a Ewing Arts Award.
Whitney said he had known about Poanessa’s work for years, but it wasn’t until recently that he visited Poanessa’s workshop at Keene Signworx, just past the Swanzey-Keene town line. When he saw the Poanessa work – and the industry awards he’d won for it – Whitney knew.
“I was just struck by the beauty of his signs and the fact he’d won all kinds of major industry awards for it and then when I found out also that he was responsible for getting the Walldogs … that was a slam dunk,” Whitney said.
Poanessa came to his passion in a roundabout way. He was born in Keene and spent his 20s doing manual labor and learning boat repair, home building, furniture making and more.
It was in Seattle, of all places, that he realized design was his calling. He had been working as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska, and the boat he was on was moored in Seattle, awaiting a painter to emboss the ship’s name, the Wonderland, on it.
Poanessa recalled watching the painter create beautiful letterings. Someone could make a living doing that, he thought to himself.
“I looked at that and then a lightbulb went off,” he said. “And that was really my introduction to the trade.”
He hasn’t stopped. Over the years, Poanessa reached the top of his industry, winning dozens of regional and national awards for his work. His work had been featured in Signcraft, an industry magazine, numerous times — five of those occasions featured his work on the cover.
Though some may dismiss their design, Poanessa knows that a well-made sign can catch the eye and communicate a sentiment in a split-second. There’s an art to it, he said.
Working with constraints put forth by town ordinances, he said, he tries to transmit the essence of a business as cleanly and purely as possible. Then, he goes about bringing his vision to life, either by woodcarving, welding or myriad other techniques. At their best, signs are one of the most accessible forms of public art.
“For me, art is like life. It’s like a basic need,” he said. “(It’s like) the way a glass of water feels to you when you’re thirsty. For me, the process of dreaming things up and building things, it’s like, life-affirming.”
Murals, too, are public art. Poanessa said he’d known about The Walldogs, a loose collective of artists, many of whom are sign makers, for 20 years or so. But he didn’t participate in a festival until 2015, that one in Cincinnati.
He loved working alongside other artists, he said, and the idea of bringing The Walldogs to Keene was born. Keene’s festival, dubbed “The Magical History Tour,” took about 20 months to plan from start to finish, Poanessa said. There were a lot of complicated logistics, from selecting walls for the murals to securing permissions from various building owners.
Then there was the matter of funding. Poanessa said he wanted the festival to be a gift to the city of Keene, so organizers sought grants and sponsorships rather than asking for taxpayer money. In all, he said, they raised roughly $250,000. The artists he selected for the murals — some of them came from as far as Germany and Australia — paid their own ticket and volunteered their time and expertise.
But Poanessa is far from done. He wants more walls in downtown Keene to have murals.
For every mural that made it to a wall at The Walldogs festival, there’s another historical theme that didn’t make it. Poanessa said he wants to work his way through the remaining themes, adding a mural a year to the collection.
“There are some walls I’ve got my eye on,” he said. “I’ve had my eye on particular walls for 30 years, wanting to paint something.”