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Monday, 25 September 2017 15:11

They’re painting the town

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WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The newest addition to downtown Delavan marks some of the city’s oldest industrial roots -- in a way that makes people stop and stare.

A new mural on the west side of the Delavan Fitness Center building, 114 N. Third St., features three of Delavan’s early industries: Barker Lumber Co., Moser Screw Machine Co. and Urbandale Dairy.

The mural is number 20 for Delavan in a public art project painted by a group of skilled sign painters and mural artists from around the world known as Walldogs. Eighteen of the murals were painted on downtown buildings when a group of Walldogs convened in Delavan for five days in June 2015, thanks in part to Brad and Kit Bandow, owners of Brushfire Signs in Elkhorn. The Bandows, Walldog artists themselves, nominated the city for the group’s annual event.

This year the meet was in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, with a second event in Pawkatuck, Rhode Island. According to the Walldogs’ website, 30 communities around the country have held mural events, including five in Wisconsin.

The group’s murals are designed to look like vintage advertisements painted on the sides of buildings a century or more ago by itinerant artists who earned the nickname of “walldogs.”

The Delavan murals were highlighted when an episode of the Milwaukee Public Television show, “Around the Corner With John McGivern” was filmed there last year. Another MPT program, “The Arts Page,” also featured them in an Emmy-nominated episode in 2016. 

The city’s 19th mural was unveiled last May and featured a longtime Walldog artist, FranCisco Vargas, who died shortly after working on the 2015 Delavan mural of the Rodriguez Brothers Potato Farm. The Vargas mural was painted on panels in Illinois, became part of a traveling exhibit and was finally brought to Wisconsin. 

The 2015 murals illustrate such chapters of Delavan’s past as its ballrooms that once attracted the likes of big bands with names like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, its renown as home of one of the world’s most popular handcrafted cigars, its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, even the military contract work its residents did during World War II.

Both visitors and locals have learned more about the city and town, from the area being the home to the Wisconsin State School for the Deaf to the fact that Delavan was founded as a temperance community, said Lori Wuttke, the owner of Remember When, a Delavan antiques store.

“I think it’s another reason to come to Delavan. It’s very unique to see the city and town’s history in pictures,” said Wuttke, who counts the World War II Rosie the Riveter mural on the west side of the Delavan Fire Department as one of her favorites.

“Many people don’t know that during World War II, Delavan was on the top 10 list of cities that could be sabotaged by the enemy because it had one of the highest number of military contracts in the country,” she said.

“Tourists always ask why there is a giraffe and an elephant statue in Tower Park. People know about Baraboo, but they don’t always know about Delavan’s circus history and how circuses used to winter right here.”

The murals have been a good attraction for the area, even drawing bus groups and walking tours that stop to admire the artwork, said Patti Marsicano, president of the Delavan Historical Society.

“We’ve gone through a lot of brochures,” she said of the self-guided maps of the murals.

Marsicano pored over historical files and old photographs for all of the murals’ subjects -- including the latest -- for the painters.

She found it interesting to see how the three businesses -- all of which are still operating -- changed over the years.

“Barker Lumber has evolved into more of a hardware store. Urbandale Dairy grew into the Alder Companies and Moser Screw Machine Products is now MicroPrecision,” Marsicano said.

The new mural is just 44 inches to the right of a 2015 mural that features another trio of early Delavan industries --  Bradley Knitting Co., J.B. Reader Windmill and Pump Factory and Sta-Rite.

All the businesses were chosen by the Delavan Walldog committee, said Brad Bandow, who worked with his wife on the new mural, including designing the layout and the actual painting.

“Since (the new mural) is a continuation of Delavan’s historical past industry, celebrating the business people and what they brought to the city, the subjects that were selected happened to be very important for this area’s growth, mainly that of building materials and Wisconsin’s finest milk products,” Bandow said in an email. “It was our job to bring those pictures alive through paint and display them on the wall so that citizens could remember or learn something new about this beloved city.”

Bandow said he and his wife love history, so reviewing the old photographs Marsicano furnished was part of the fun of the project.

“We study (old photos) more than your average person because we’re seeing them through artists’ eyes, looking for those interesting details that many miss by a glance,” he said. “These photos tell a story, a snippet in time, a place you want to go back to and even stay, if it were possible.”

For some subjects, there’s not a wealth of visual material to draw from. Moser Screw Machine Products was a good example, Bandow said, because most of the intricate parts the company manufactured were often hidden inside larger objects and, if drawn, wouldn’t be easily recognizable to a viewer. Instead, the factory building where those parts were created became part of the mural.  

Bandow, a former Delavan resident, and his wife, who once lived in Lake Geneva, were scheduled to be at the Rhode Island Walldogs meet earlier this month, but both agreed to forgo the trip to work on the Delavan mural. Because almost all of the Walldogs were at the meet, the Bandows recruited a handful of local helpers, including Lake Geneva artist Elayne Tirtilli, to help fill in large areas while the couple “concentrated on detail work that only experienced Walldogs can tackle,” Bandow said.

Bandow thinks Plymouth is the only Wisconsin city that has more Walldogs murals than Delavan. But he has hopes Delavan can add more murals in the future, particularly with a focus on the arts.

“Plans are in the works, but I can’t let the paint out of the can just yet,” he said. “We want to build on what we’ve created in the downtown business area and get people to come enjoy what’s being offered in this wonderful place to live.

“There’s good stuff here and we want to bring more -- more food, more music, more dance, more sculpture, more art and more celebration in this historical haven.” 


See for yourself

• Delavan’s newest mural, featuring three longtime area businesses, is located on the west side of the Delavan Fitness Center building, 114 N. Third St.

• A mural of Walldog artist FranCisco Vargas, unveiled in May, can be found on North Second Street, near Hawk’s Nest restaurant, 103 N. Second St.

• View the series of 18 Delavan murals painted by the Walldogs in 2015 online at the Delavan-Delavan Lake Area Chamber of Commerce website,

• Pick up a self-guided tour map of the murals at the chamber office, 52 E. Walworth Ave., Delavan.



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