September 13, 2017 11:14PM
By Nancy Burns-Fusaro
Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — For the first time in 24 years, Jay Robert Allen will be neither painting a mural nor leading a group of mural painters during a Walldogs event. This go-round, Allen, the owner and president of the Machesney Park, Ill.-based ShawCraft Sign Co., will be volunteering during the five-day Westerly-Pawcatuck event, and signing copies of his book, “The Walldogs: A Different Breed of Public Art Muralists, Painting History One Small Town at a Time.”
Allen, who has been in the sign business since 1983 and has won a number of awards for design excellence in the art of sign-making and fine-art murals, is also a published author, seminar instructor, public speaker and past contributing writer for the former SignBusiness (now Sign & Digital Graphics) magazine. Allen’s large-format public art murals grace the walls of various communities throughout the country. Since 1999, he and his fellow artisans have completed 50 murals across 8 states.
Allen will sign copies of his book on Friday, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Savoy Bookshop and Café, Canal Street.
Allen was also gracious enough to answer five questions for The Guide:
1. What exactly is public art?
Public art is art that is placed in an exterior setting for the public to view, as opposed to art in collections or museums. It can be commemorative — as is the case with the Walldogs in Westerly, where history is being retold graphically — or it can be artistic — such as street art or abstract sculptures or temporary art installations. Public art creates a sense of place for residents and visitors, it gets “feet on the street” and can help gentrify cold urban climates. Whether telling a story — or just engaging the eyes in curiosity — art makes us suspend our thoughts to give pause to something other than the stresses and drudgery of life.
2. How did you become interested in mural painting?
It started in high school although it was never a vocation. After the first Walldogs gathering in 1993, the friendships between “the originals” became too strong — the work too in demand — and the larger point of two “communities” collaborating too unique not to feature as a model for an ideal partnership between two groups of strangers.
3. How many murals have you painted?
Although I chose to “retire” from Walldog project leadership to allow for younger, better talent to show their skills, I have participated in 50 mural paintings in eight states in 16 years. My final design was executed by a team of skilled Walldogs at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. My largest in number was 35 murals erected across the state of Illinois to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway — the nation’s first transcontinental road. It was a four-year project created for the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition and was funded by both state and federal highway monies.
4. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Belvidere, Ill., the location of the third-ever Walldog meet — and the first to partner with the community. Nancy Bennett, the creator of the Walldogs, started something so economically powerful — without ever knowing she would do so — and it thrives as a grass-roots effort to this day. Next year we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary in Streator, Ill.
5. What inspired you to write “The Walldogs”?
Every time someone said, “somebody should write a book about you” they were always looking at me. I have become a bit of a de facto spokesperson at times — announcing art auction items and giving inspirational talks,etc. I started writing as a child.
Coming full circle, I combined the larger message of inspiration and collaboration that we Walldogs have privately discussed for years. We have asked ourselves, “Why is this so special, and why do we bond so tightly with these complete strangers?” — and that search for an answer (aside from the loving adoration and “rock-star” treatment each community shows us) has been the greatest reason for writing the book. It’s a story that needs to be told because it inspires. The word participant communities always use when describing Walldogs events is “magic” ... and that’s not an exaggeration. It is the word everyone seems to choose. You’ll see, too ... and we, as a group look ahead to this week with adrenalized excitement ... and happy as can be that we’re somewhere besides our usual Midwest location.