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Telling The Story

A stroll through downtown Westerly can tell visitors and residents a lot about the rich history of this nearly 350-year-old community. A dozen murals in Westerly - and four in neighboring Pawcatuck, Connecticut - remain a conversation starter two years after they went up during a five-day painting festival in the fall of 2017. Bricks & Murals, the nonprofit that was the driving force behind it, completed another project this past summer called The Harmony Trail. Jim Hummel has the details in this month’s Spotlight.


To get a sense of where Westerly is today, all you need to do is take a stroll through the downtown and look up, over or maybe straight ahead.


A dozen murals adorn a variety of buildings, each telling part of the rich history of this nearly 350-year-old community whose downtown has been revitalized over the past decade. Four more murals have been painted on buildings in neighboring Pawcatuck, Connecticut.


From the Hurricane of 1938 and the century-old Westerly-Stonington high school football rivalry; to Westerly Telephone, one of the first automated telephone companies in the country and Wilcox Park. The murals combine art and history, with dose of economic development mixed in.


Bricks & Murals, a nonprofit formed in early 2017, was the driving force behind the project. It drew more than 100 artists from as across the country, and as far as Germany, for a five-day painting festival in September 2017. The murals have been a conversation-starter ever since.


Gagnier: “This is about a community remembering itself, remembering its history, and then putting it forward.”


John Gagnier, a former Town Councilman, worked for years to get buy-in on a project he thought would be a great fit for Westerly.


Gagnier: “If you go to a church you see stained glass and the stained glass tells a story. These murals tell a story about this community.”


It is part of a larger revitalization of the downtown that includes a vibrant restaurant and music scene and the debut next year of the newly-refurbished United Theater, which will be a regional hub for the arts.


Gagnier: “Public art can be an economic engine, it can make a place interesting, it can differentiate one area from another.”


And, having both communities included reinforces a theme that many who live here know already.


Gagnier: “Two states, two towns that share one downtown.”


Brown: “I saw the slides of what was the artwork that the Walldogs had done in the Midwest. Very impressed with it, very impressed. And I said okay I’m in.”


Wendy Brown was an early skeptic but came around when she saw a presentation Gagnier made at the library in early 2016. He spoke about the Walldogs, an international organization of sign painters and muralists who travel from community to community to work on projects like the one in downtown Westerly.


But Brown, who was president of the Downtown Business Association at the time -  was also looking at the project as a economic catalyst when she signed on.


Brown: “This is a way that we can single out Westerly downtown and make it unique enough to attract people here. And murals were a way that I saw that we could create another economic generator. Brand the downtown and make it something special.”


Brown would wind up becoming president of the Bricks & Murals nonprofit, which raised $150,000 for the project. It was the Walldogs’ first effort in the Northeast.


Brown: “I think what’s particularly cool about them is it’s local history. And for me, I got to learn a lot about Westerly. Even local didn’t know. All of a sudden we’re memorializing this history, that makes this town unique in an artistic way permanently for all generations.”


Gagnier said that not long after they were finished, a lifelong Westerly resident in his 70s approached him.


Gagnier: “The gentlemen said ‘Thank for making me fall in love with my town again.’”


He added that the mural project had an unintended benefit as well


Gagnier: “Some of the buildings have seen owners invest in those building. Repointing, getting the bricks in place. We were willing to do it where the mural existed as part of the arrangement. And we were told by the owners, No, I’m going to do that, I’m going to do the whole side of my building.”


The Westerly-Stonington high school football rivalry, which dates to 1911,  is painted on the side of CC O’Brien’s Sports Café in Pawcatuck, the first business to agree to have a mural on its building. It depicts a Westerly Bulldog and a Stonington Bear on either side of the mural and two players facing off at midfield with a scoreboard that reads: 7-7.


A block away, a painting memorializing “The Great New England Hurricane of 1938” is tucked away on the side of a building, in an alley, on West Broad Street. It includes a sunken ship and flooded houses.


Gagnier: “Some folks had felt from a PR perspective we’ll call it, we don’t want to advertise disasters that we have hurricane. Well, we’re New Englanders, we get hurricanes periodically. But that one is a story that celebrates this community and our ability to recover and to put things back together, it’s a real tribute to people of that era.”


The largest mural is on the side of the 86-year-old Knickerbocker Café (now called The Knickerbocker Music Center) and spans the entire parking lot side of the storied building, across the street from the Amtrak station. The Knickerbocker Express is rolling along a musical keyboard to the left, and musicians playing a variety of instruments are set to the right.


It hasn’t ended with the murals. The nonprofit over the summer put the finishing touches on a new “Harmony Trail” that also spans both towns. A dozen metal  instruments, many looking like keyboards, are tuned to play in harmony - meaning anyone can use them and make beautiful music.


They are durable, meant to withstand the elements, with rubber mallets attached by ropes, ready for any visitor to pick up and begin playing. And that’s just what a tour group from Pawtucket did on visit to Westerly on a Saturday morning in September.


Lebling: “I can barely play a musical note myself, but I found these amazing instruments, there was no discord, anybody can play them, every two notes are harmony.


Tim Lebling is the current president of The Downtown Business Association.


“And this vision of putting them through the community, as opposed to just one park, just so appealed to this kind of musical campus that’s being created in this downtown area.”


Leblin pitched bringing the instruments to Westerly after a family trip to Indiana in the summer of 2018.


 “My 4-year-old son at the time said ‘Dad, why don’t we have these in our town?”


Lebling, who moved to Westerly in 2013, didn’t have a good answer. So he advocated bringing the instruments to Westerly and Pawcatuck - just as Gagnier had worked to see the mural project become a reality.


Leblin: “No sooner did we have this instrument in the ground where we had residents coming out and playing this instrument. That alone, really provided what the gift of music can give you: people can come out and use this as a tool, as entertainment, as something that they normally don’t get to do.”


Brown said she could see more murals going up in Pawcatuck, but thinks downtown Westerly has enough. Lebling said he’s not sure what the next project for the nonprofit will be, but is always open to suggestions.


Lebling: “And that’s one of the challenges I put out when I became the president of the business association was: Find a cool idea that you’ve seen work somewhere else and bring it back to us and let’s try it.”


In Westerly - and Pawcatuck - Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

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