Once a year, the Walldogs descend on a new town, armed to take the place over for a few days before leaving just as fast as they appeared, with the town never to be the same again.

Far from a gang of roving outlaws, the Walldogs are a group of sign painters who come to a town and paint more than a dozen murals depicting historical figures and events relevant to that community.

For the second year, local artist Cynthia Hallstrom participated in the Walldog Festival, which took her to Keene, N.H., last month. She was one of 230 artists creating 16 vintage-style murals.

"A lot of people go, 'Why come all this way?'" Hallstrom said. "For me, personally, I almost always paint by myself. It's lonely! There's so much I don't know. I want to learn from other people."

From June 19 to 23, Hallstrom worked on a mural of Barry Faulkner, a famous muralist from Keene who lived from 1881 to 1966. Some of the figures in the mural were purposefully left undone, Hallstrom said, to illustrate that Faulkner hadn't yet finished them.

Hallstrom was one of six artists working on the mural, which was designed before the festival by team leader Tom Seibert, a Southern California artist. Subjects of the murals were decided by members of the Walldogs and the Keene community.

During the festival, artists like Hallstrom were fed and housed by residents of the Keene community. After four days, and a fight with the elements, the murals were finished.

"We had bad weather," Hallstrom said. "We had rain and wind, we had tarps over us, but we prevailed!"

Hallstrom, 66, was born and raised in Ridgecrest before moving to Bakersfield in 1977. Since then, she's been a working artist, making her living in the sign industry doing hand-lettering before focusing more on her personal art. Though she's done plenty of murals, most of them in people's homes, watercolor is her preferred medium. 

Walldogs was a perfect fit for Hallstrom's background, as the festival came about from a group of sign painters called Letterheads. Worried that the art of hand-lettering would be lost forever with digital art taking over, the festival was created to celebrate the art form.

"Anybody in lettering arts always stuck together," Hallstrom said.

The Walldogs mostly stick to the Midwest and South for its annual festival, which just celebrated its 26th year. In 2006, Lodi became the first, and so far only, California town at the center of the festival.

There are certain requirements for towns to be involved, and one of them is that they are relatively small. The process can take up to five years, with project leaders and community members working together.

Keene was Hallstrom's second festival. Her first was last year's festival in Streator, Illinois. Artists aren't assigned certain groups to work with; teams tend to form with people who know each other or have worked on a mural together before, leaving Hallstrom without a project until she found a project leader who invited her on a team.

"I had to go around like a sad puppy, 'Gee, I wish I could paint on this mural!'" she said, later adding that she heard about the festival online. "I didn't know anybody, I just signed up and sent some of my work."

With the first year under her belt, Hallstrom had a few more contacts this year. She hitched a ride with Seibert and ended up joining his team.

"This year, I had a home," she said. "Ours took the longest, but we had a dedicated crew."

Hallstrom said with big projects like these murals, "ego goes out the door." Teams have to work well together, following their leader and not taking it personally if something they painted has to be redone. 

"What I chose to do, I knew we were lagging, so I would do my part, then go and clean up every little corner," she said. "Pull everything together and crisp the corners."

Other murals feature The Keene Evening Sentinel; Keene State College; Jennie B. Powers, who founded the Cheshire County Humane Society in 1875; Catherine Fiske, who founded the Keene Women's Seminary in 1814; and Jonathan Daniels, a Keene-born civil rights activist and seminarian, who was murdered at 26 while saving the life of Ruby Sales, a young black activist, in Alabama in 1965.

"The community was so excited and delighted by the beauty that has been brought there," Hallstrom said. "They love it!"

At the end of the event, smaller-scale versions of the murals were auctioned off, with proceeds set to go toward the murals' maintenance, Hallstrom said.

While Hallstrom has enjoyed her time at the two Walldogs festivals, she's not sure if she will return next year. The event regularly falls on her birthday, which she explained has been fun but she'd also like to celebrate her day in Sweden or Stonehenge in the future.

To see more of the Walldogs' murals in Keene, go to walldogsinkeene.com.

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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