From Kentucky to Scotland, over 100 volunteer artists have joined from across the world to bring color to downtown High Springs during the Walldogs Dive Into High Springs mural and history festival.
Comprised of technical sign painters, an international community called the Walldogs are routinely tasked to craft intricate, large-scale murals in historical towns throughout the United States. They’ve done so for over 25 years.
Though the festival was postponed until 2023 because of the pandemic, the Walldogs made their debut in High Springs to pay homage to the city’s rich roots. With the help of The Heart of High Springs, a nonprofit aiming to support the culture and growth of the city, the festival took place from Wednesday through Sunday.
“I’ve had people travel thousands of miles on their own dime to be a part of this,” said long-time Walldog and project coordinator Doug Hancock. “For us, it’s a way for us to work with some of the greats, catch up with friends and give back to the community.”
As project coordinator for the festival, Hancock was responsible for working with local artists, The Heart of High Springs and the community to organize the event, as well as housing and food accommodations for the muralists.
Hancock proposed bringing the Walldogs to High Springs in 2019 after residents voiced interest in preserving the city’s history through public art. Once he put High Springs on the map, Hancock was able to curate a team of highly-skilled lead artists to take on the task.
Selected by residents through online voting and balloting, each of the 10 murals painted reflects the history of High Springs — from Bellamy Road, the first federal highway, to cave diving, the city’s largest tourism attraction, said Nancy Lavin, the president of The Heart of High Springs.
Lead artists began by projecting and sketching their respective designs, then gradually filling them with color throughout the festival. Community residents are even invited to pick up a brush and try their hand alongside the artists, fostering a further sense of collaboration between the people of High Springs and the muralists, she said.
Additionally, the festival featured a myriad of activities for residents, including live music, food from local eateries, an art fair and an auction featuring pieces created by each of the lead muralists.
The Walldogs originated in the early 1990s in Iowa as a way to keep street art and advertising alive. Artists scheduled small meetups to learn and teach the trade of sign painting, becoming a resource for apprenticeship and practice in the craft. Each year, its reach expanded, attracting artists worldwide, she said.
Decades later, the Walldogs’ influence has spread across the nation, leaving its mark on community-driven historical cities, she said.
Ross Hastie journeyed over 4,000 miles from Falkirk, Scotland to design and paint a mural about the Savannah, Florida and Western Railway with co-artist Dan Luckin.
In 1884, the Plant Railroad System was established, electing High Springs as its division headquarters and positioning the city as a hub for railways and steamboat locomotives. The mural pays tribute to the tireless work of steamboat and railroad laborers of the time, Hastie said.
After joining the Walldogs in 2018, he has painted historical murals in Illinois, New Hampshire and Oregon. For the lifelong artist, the guild has not only provided him a way to travel across the U.S. but integrate himself into the roots of its communities.
“I’m a pretty average 24-year-old from a pretty average town in Scotland, and I’ve been so many places I would have never otherwise been,” he said. “We get right in the community, which I much prefer.”
Christine Deshazo, a lead artist from Illinois, has spent the past eight years as a Walldog and 43 years as a sign painter.
“When you put a group of artists together, it’s all about blending people’s different styles into one cohesive piece of artwork,” she said. “You have a design that you start with on paper, but then, everyone puts a little bit of themselves into it.”
Deshazo was tasked with directing a poster-style mural on the Priest Theater, the longest-standing movie theater in Florida since 1910 and a place of nostalgia for generations of High Springs residents, she said.
Though the theater closed its doors during the pandemic, Deshazo said she hopes to carry on the legacy of the establishment and its owners.
High Springs City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Ross Ambrose echoed Deshazo’s remarks, adding that the murals not only uphold the memory of beloved landmarks but make a name for High Springs for years to come.
“We’ve uncovered a lot of stories people didn’t know about,” he said. “Working on the murals together and helping to preserve our past is something that holds value for our community.”
Additionally, the festival served to amplify the efforts of High Springs citizens, as residents worked together to shuttle muralists from surrounding airports, provide host housing and collect research behind each of the murals for the artists to work with, he said.
Similarly, Hancock said whereas muralists usually work alone with their teams, the Walldogs strive to join forces with the community they serve with a synergetic approach.
“Art is powerful,” he said. “Public art, like a mural, is really in your face. The beauty of the Walldogs is they create collaborative works vetted by the community itself—which is a beautiful thing, right?”