Streator wants to become an art destination in Illinois, and they’re working with an international group of artists to do it.
The city held a mural fest that had just as much to do with community as it did with art. More than a dozen hand-drawn murals illustrated different aspects of the city’s history.
They’re the work of the Walldogs, an international network of artists and professional sign painters. All members travel to one or two destinations around the globe each year to paint historically significant murals and initiate community art projects. The Walldogs partnered with Streator for their sole 2018 event, called "Murals and Milestones."
This weekend’s event was a city-wide effort, organized in part by Tara Bedei.
"I called the Walldogs and contacted them four years ago, and they said 'Our first date is 2018,'” Bedei recalls. "I kind of did the math and I said, 'Oh perfect, that’s our 150th anniversary!'"
One mural highlights Streator as the glass container capital of the world, another shows the face of Clyde Tombaugh, the Streator native who discovered Pluto.
Residents of Streator showed up in droves to help volunteer, to paint, to donate various supplies and even to house visiting Walldogs. Longtime local Donna Stone opened her home.
"I mean you get so much more involved," Stone said. "I’ve been looking forward to this for two or three years, since Tara first mentioned it."
Stone hosted sign company owner and artist Steve Estes travelling from Florida with his family.
Estes and his daughter were at the very first Walldog meeting, and for them, this Streator fest is a way to connect over art.
"We have a great time doing it," Estes said. "It’s fun, we meet a lot of good people, have a good time everywhere we go, and the experience between us-- it solidifies the bond there."
He said eight to ten of the original Walldogs were in Streator this weekend, including host of the very first Walldog meeting in Allerton, Iowa, Nancy Bennett. She said she was impressed with all the beautifying the city did in preparation for the Walldog’s arrival.
"A lot of towns can’t get ready so we have gotten a lot of requests, but Streator’s very special because they followed through," Bennett said.
This past weekend, she was the project leader for the World War Two Canteen Mural. It illustrates the popular cafeteria, which was open from 1943 to 1946 and served 1.5 million soldiers and sailors. The mural shows a smiling woman embracing a smirking sailor. The city of Streator has a bursting history that Ed Brozak say has been looked over.
"We had a lot of things going for us but nobody knew it at the time," Brozak notes. "We have a lot of history, I think more history than probably any town in Illinois if you really look at it. And we wanted to high light that as much as we could."
Brozak and Mayor Jimmie Lansford first got the idea of bringing the Walldogs to Illinois after seeing their work in the Wisconsin area. In addition to artistic growth, Mayor Lansford is looking at the bigger picture to increase economic growth and tourism in the area.
"For the past 10 years we’ve focused on regionalization and we’ve love to have it in our community," Langsford said. "If it’s not going to be in our community, if it’s in a neighboring community, it's going to affect some of our citizens also."
North of Streator is Starved Rock State Park. The park has recently had to adjust to an overwhelming increase in tourists visiting their trails. Last year the park said they had just shy of three million visitors, a number that has Starved Rock officials beginning to seriously consider crowd control options.
"We’re only about thirty miles from Starved Rock and Starved Rock has two to three million visitors a year," Langsford said. "And most of those are coming out of the Chicago metropolitan area. "We want to tap into that market, So if they’re here in the area, what’s another thirty mile drive to see what Streator has to offer?
Murals were finished on Sunday night. They’re expected to be permanent installations in the city.
Bedei says they’ll be hosting an event on July 4 for people to enjoy Independence Day and also check out the completed murals.
"Even two years ago to today, there’s a big difference in downtown Streator," Bedei said. "So, I’d just say come back and give us another try."