An international group of artists is scheduled to paint a series of murals in High Spring in March. But residents remain at odds over the historic themes of the murals and whether they want them painted at all.
The Heart of High Springs, a nonprofit organization, announced in 2019 that the town would host the 2022 Walldogs Mural and History Festival. The event was postponed because of the pandemic and is scheduled for March 22-26.
Using private buildings in town as their canvas, the artists — with the help of community volunteers — will paint nine murals that honor High Springs’ history.
Bob Watson, a High Springs resident since 2006, said he hopes this event will bring more people interested in history to the area.
“There’s more to High Springs than the springs,” said Watson, a railroad enthusiast known as “Railroad Bob.”
Douglas Hancock, the festival’s project coordinator and local member of the Walldogs, said the Heart of High Springs tried hard to involve everybody in the process. He said the organization invited community members to vote online or in person for their top mural subjects.
“The top mural subjects were the ones that are being painted on the walls,” said Hancock. “So the community selected what we’re painting on the walls.”
Linda Jones, a former city commissioner, and City Commissioner Katherine Weitz said most High Springs residents do not want this.
“They want to maintain our small-town feel. They don’t want Gainesville to come into High Springs, and that’s what they feel like is happening,” said Jones. “They don’t want the nightlife. They don’t want drinking to be so pervasive.”
Weitz said the opposing group is not against murals or art, but against the Walldogs coming to town and deciding the content they will put up on the murals without considering what High Springs residents want.
“There is a mural on an old barber shop, the first African American barber shop in High Springs. There’s a mural of Mr. (Otto) Duncan on that wall, and it’s a beautiful mural. And the person who runs that barber shop now wanted to honor his memory. Those are the kinds of things people up here don’t mind.” Weitz said.
Gerald Clum, the High Springs painter behind Otto Duncan’s mural, said the Heart of High Springs contacted him to design a mural that children could paint during the Walldogs festival.
Bill Wagoner, the City Administrator during the Walldogs’ 2012 mural festival in Arcola, Illinois, said having children paint a mural was a good way to involve them in the process and give them a sense of ownership.
City Commissioner Ross Ambrose, a founder and treasurer of the Heart of High Springs, said the organization has raised more than $100,000 from private donors for the event. The money will go toward feeding and providing housing, materials and equipment to the artists and volunteers.
The funds will also cover expenses for public safety and traffic control, trash removal, and marketing for the event. Money will also be set aside from those funds for the maintenance of the nine murals and stipends for the lead artists.
“That stipend in no way equates to what their time is normally billed at, much less the fact that they’ll be away from home for a week. And they pay their own travel expenses,” said Ambrose. “We have two people coming from England and Scotland; their stipend is eaten up pretty much an airfare.”
Hancock, the project coordinator, will receive a stipend too. “I’ve been working for four years on this project,” he said. “The stipend doesn’t even come close to paying for your time.”
High Springs resident Alice Brown worries the murals will increase acts of vandalism in the town.
“We already have little tiny bits of crime going on,” she said. “We don’t want to see … graffiti to just destroy the mural.”
Wagoner said that in the 12 years the murals have been up in Arcola, the city has dealt with vandalism once.
“It was pretty minor. We cleaned it up and touched the paint up on it,” he said. “If you had not seen it, you would have never known it was there.”
Another one of Brown’s concerns is that people might misinterpret the murals.
“We knew that the cowboys of Florida might have been one of the options, but the mural itself showed a man on a horse with a whip and the great big letters across the top… life-sized letters saying Crackers,” said Brown. “People in Florida are not going to get this. They’re not going to understand that this is about cowboys. All they’re gonna hear is the racial slur, the Cracker’s part.”
It’s unclear if this mural will go up in High Springs.
The Heart of High Springs will reveal the final designs when they receive them, said Hancock.
Tina Corbett, a local artist and president of Lanza Gallery & Art Supplies, is organizing the town’s first Art Fair on the Green scheduled to take place alongside the Walldogs Mural Festival.
“We’re hoping to get a decent showing of some local artists and even some from out of town. The fee is very low,” said Corbett. “Perhaps the art fair will become an annual event if it goes well.”
Artists interested in participating have until Feb. 4 to apply and will be notified by Feb. 11 if accepted.