Belvidere – Illinois’ City Of Murals The Walldog Murals
(Part of the Belvidere Wall-to-Wall Arts Festival)
June 20-22, 1997 By Jay Allen
What started as a simple phone call in late 1995 between me and Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joan Sage eventually culminated in an event that helped alter the look and attitude of Belvidere for the new Millennium.
Ms. Sage, knowing of my involvement with a group of international Sign Artists named ‘The Letterheads’, requested that I invite them to Belvidere to paint a mural on an exposed, decaying wall adjacent to a municipal parking lot. Her initial request was for one mural on that wall - painted (as The Letterheads had done before) in a single weekend during one of their scheduled (and themed) “meets”. A rather daunting task because of the sheer size of the wall – which stood 34 feet high and 80 feet long – but similar in scope to other projects the Letterheads had completed in smaller communities.
That one phone call set into motion the formation of an organizing committee to plan an arts ‘festival’ around the mural painting. The building owner and local civic organizations increased the projects enthusiasm zeal. My fellow Letterheads, too, met the idea with the same enthusiasm. The chance to profoundly change the look of a town – and enhance pride in the community – sounded too challenging to ignore.
The Chamber of Commerce facilitated and proceeded with development of the festival as a yearly project. Working with the Belvidere Woman’s Club, the festival took form around the Club’s highly successful Art Show – then in its 34th year. As plans progressed, more mural opportunities arose. More building owners requesting murals started a groundswell of local and regional support and soon, one mural became four. Then eight. And finally . . . ten! A total of 6,000 square feet of surface with plans to paint the designs in only one 72-hour period.
The theme for the Letterhead meet was chosen and aptly named “Walldog Rendezvous”. The word ‘Walldog’ being a nickname coined by billboard painters during the mid-part of the century, when the painters would ‘paint walls all day while working like dogs’ often sleeping under the billboards at night. The festival name was dubbed the “Boone County Wall-to-Wall Arts Festival.”
Project leaders were chosen from active Letterheads through personal friendships with the artists. Gary Anderson, Nancy Bennett, Steve Estes, Ray and Renata Guzman, William F. Hueg, Jeffery P. Lang, Mark Oatis, Elaine Wallis and Noel Weber were selected for their incredible skills and design abilities – and for the ‘marquee value’ of their reputations in the sign industry. Their talents – and the chance to work side-by-side with them – would help draw a small army of other artists from around the country (and around the world) – a necessary component if we were to pull off such a monumental task. Eventually, 275 artists (and their families) would descend upon Belvidere, paying $75.00 each to register (and all travel expenses) for the Belvidere meet. Just for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As the weekend approached, swarms of my staff pressure-washed walls, built structures, and distributed an arsenal of ladders, scaffolding, hydraulic lifts, lighting and electrical supplies, and paint supplies to the various mural sites – all of it donated by local citizens and corporate sponsors. Local volunteers, law enforcement and city crews worked overtime to put all of the pieces of the ‘Wall-to-Wall Festival’ together by fastening panels to the 3-story mural, putting out garbage cans, rerouting traffic and providing round-the-clock security. Artists had been arriving since that Tuesday – helping where they could and forging bonds with
When the weekend finally arrived the eyes of Northern Illinois were firmly fixed on Belvidere. Local and national media provided daily coverage of the painting, while Mother Nature cooperated to provide beautiful backdrops for the unfolding dramas discovered by the news reporters. From morning ‘til night, crowds estimated at 25,000 or more, lined the streets and sidewalks to watch the transformation and experience the sights and sounds of the festival. Children were taught to paint while being entertained by clowns, jugglers and mimes. Music echoed all day through the downtown from a tent in the Community Building parking lot – surrounded by food vendors.
72 hours later on the balmy summer evening of June 22, 1997, the last brush strokes were applied – the painting completed – and the challenge met.
For those attending that weekend, the only word close to describing the feeling between artists and community was “magical.” It was an adventure of more than 2 years for some of us – but a moment in each of our lives, artist and citizen alike, that inspired hope – hope that our respective communities would retain that feeling of camaraderie and fellowship for future generations. As one project leader put it, “The richest moments we share in life are the moments we share with one another. Once again, as a group, we have left our mark on a place in time – and it has left a mark on us.” It truly was America at its finest.
In October 1997, Governor James Edgar officially declared Belvidere ‘Illinois City of Murals’ and presented the Chamber of Commerce with an official proclamation. In November of that year the Illinois Arts Council awarded Belvidere the Governor’s Award for the Arts for Community. In early spring 1998, the Illinois Tourism Department awarded Belvidere ‘First Place’ for Citywide Promotion Campaigns. Local businesswoman (and mural committee member) Maureen Koteles even named her new McDonald’s restaurant “The Walldog Diner” and displayed the awards and memorabilia from the event in display cases throughout her restaurant. But none could match the pride that Belvidere now felt in its revitalized downtown landscape.
For me, it was a real honor – a way to give something back to my hometown. A means of acknowledging that Belvidere, like all small towns, struggles with its own identity – but still offers the values and opportunities any child needs for a good start in life. It is our obligation as members of ANY community to honor our past and build for our future. To show our children the spirit and affect of cooperation – helping preserve the future by remembering what was good about our past.
Four more murals were added during 1998, 1999 and 2000, bringing the total to 15 – with many more to come if the community continues to show the same support it has to date. The possibilities seem endless – especially since we know as a community what we are collectively capable of accomplishing. But they will remain just that – possibilities – unless we continue to work together into the next Millennium.