High Springs is divided over the Walldogs and a planned murals festival
Whether the Walldogs come to High Springs remains an open question.
The Walldogs call themselves a group of hundreds of highly skilled sign painters and mural artists, who for nearly 30 years have helped small towns to boost their tourism by leaving behind beautiful, handcrafted works of art depicting local history.
And yet the idea of allowing the Walldogs to paint murals on the walls of buildings in High Springs has divided residents, artists and city officials.
The Walldogs every few months descend on a community for four to five days to paint multiple murals and old-fashioned wall displays. The Heart of High Springs, a nonprofit organization, announced plans in 2019 for what the Walldogs call a festival in the city in 2022. The pandemic caused a postponement until March 2023.
Those for the festival say the endeavor would foster significant community engagement, inspire greater pride in the local heritage and generate more dollars for the business community.
“We really do want it to be a community event,” said Kelly Barber, a board member of The Heart of High Springs.
The festival would be funded through private donations from local businesses, though the nonprofit’s leaders have yet to reveal from which ones or clarify how much it would cost.
Opponents say having more large murals painted on the several historic red brick buildings under consideration would ruin the charm of the city. They also say the last thing High Springs needs – particularly with its existing traffic and parking concerns – is more tourism.
“We don’t want to be a destination,” said City Commissioner Linda Jones, who opposes the idea. Speaking of The Heart of High Springs, Jones said, “It amazes me that this group wants to proceed with this when they hear so many residents who don’t want it.”
Douglas Hancock is project manager for the National Center for Construction Education and Research in Alachua – and the local artist who proposed having the Walldogs come to High Springs. Now the project coordinator for the local event, Hancock, 44, who took part in a festival in Illinois in 2012, said there are nearly a dozen Walldogs in north Florida.
“It’s individual artists coming on their own dime, volunteering their time to be a part of it,” he said.
Hancock is also known for painting the large, colorful mural on the North Florida Springs Environmental Center at U.S. Route 27 and Northwest 237th Street. With a title “Gateway to the Springs” painted in white letters above “High Springs,” the artwork depicts a girl with arms spread wide and wearing pink goggles while snorkeling in the area springs.
John Sterpe, of Columbia County, is a self-taught artist who creates oil paintings of scenic scenes in north Florida. He derided the “fluorescent” style of the “Gateway to the Springs” mural and said he opposes the “Walldogs ticks” coming to High Springs.
“This is not the charm; this is not history,” Sterpe said. “That thing needs to be sand-blasted. … Restore and preserve our history: Don’t paint over it.”
Barber said that while he wants to enhance the stay of tourists that already visit the area, “We’re not trying to recreate Disney World in High Springs by any means.”
The nonprofit’s leaders said they have yet to decide the content of the murals and/or which buildings would have murals and artwork painted on them.
City Commissioner Ross Ambrose, who is also a board member of the nonprofit, said businesses would have a say about what goes on their walls.
“There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there,” Ambrose said. “We’re not painting over red brick; we don’t intend to ask the city for funds to support this that would take away from other projects.”
Tina Corbett, president of Lanza Gallery & Art Supplies, is helping to gather mural content ideas for The Heart of High Springs. Corbett said she expects there will be between 20 to 30 such ideas, and that the residents would get to vote on the final 10 to 12.
The Walldogs have a style that resembles vintage, old-fashioned signage, she said.
“It’s very professionally done murals and the flavor of them fits the flavor of this town,” Corbett said. “We have a historic town. We want to keep it a historic town.”
Still, many in the community have complained about what they say is a lack of transparency from The Heart of High Springs about the festival and/or its expected outcomes.
Deborah Fellows, a community gardener in Fort White, about 12 minutes from High Springs, posted in a local Facebook group her concerns about the Walldogs ideas.
“They want to include these beautiful history murals representing the history of High Springs, but yet they did not include the voice of the people,” Fellows, 59, told WUFT News. “What kind of history do you want?”
Sharon Yeago, board secretary for The Heart of High Springs, said the nonprofit is aware of the concerns and aims to get more information about the festival out to the community.
“Right now, what we’re focused on is laying the foundation for a good plan,” Yeago said.