Making it stick
Wisconsin State Trunk Highway 29 was renovated a while ago, peeling certain segments of an oft-dangerous two-lane highway into a four-lane freeway. This was mostly good, a safer route for truck drivers and travelers going between north central Wisconsin and either west towards Eau Claire or eastbound, dipping down to the Green Bay area or, before that, down into the Fox Valley area via U.S. Route 45. It was for the best.
Not every resulting effect of the change was, though. Wittenberg, situated slightly southeast of Wausau and northwest of Clintonville, used to get passengers driving right through its Anytown, USA downtown area before drivers were rerouted around the city entirely on Highway 29’s new streamlined path.
Now, if you’re in Wittenberg it probably isn’t by happenstance, and for a small, proud community, that hasn’t been happening enough. Without that traffic and its business, Wittenberg was struggling. The people of Wittenberg – the 2010 United States Census lists the village’s total population at 1,081 – set about trying to adapt to this new reality, and give people a specific reason to see their town.
After the Highway 29 improvements, a local resident of Wittenberg was visiting Lake Placid, Fla. – total 2010 U.S. Census population of 2,223. They too had been struggling as a small town. At some point, Lake Placid decided as a means of trying to draw visitors and businesses, they’d start putting professionally-painted murals on the sides of buildings. These bright and big art displays brought tourists to the town, reviving Lake Placid with unique attractions that people couldn’t see anywhere else.
This information came back to Wittenberg from Florida stowed away in vacation luggage, and the community decided that maybe murals with Wisconsin or local angles could work for them, too. In 2005, Walls of Wittenberg, Inc. (WOW), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was established, and work on the first mural got underway.
Today there’s more than 20 murals on downtown business buildings, stores and saloons, featuring depictions of scenes like an old-time hardware store on the side of a True Value, pets and their owners painted from real photos on the veterinary clinic, Wittenberg’s train station from the 1880s, when the town had a bustling saw mill, on the side of the lumber storage shed, and of course much more.
WOW has also expanded to include their art gallery and events headquarters, a beautifully-renovated two-story downtown building called the WOWSPACE, as well as an outdoor Art Park that showcases sculptures and paintings to sit between when the weather’s nice.
Elaine Diffor is a member of WOW, specifically on the Artist Mural Committee. She says fundraisers such as a wine, beer and cheese gala, golf scramble and selling Christmas wreaths give the organization money for murals and upkeep. Sometimes, certain sponsors provide donations for specific murals – the Low Brothers Lumber Company was a major sponsor along with WOW for the train station mural, for example. On the art side, Diffor says WOW is usually on the lookout for artists, who then send their portfolios and ideas in for consideration. But the organization’s popularity is spreading. Wittenberg’s new identity is attracting attention.
“Now we have artists contacting us,” Diffor says. “They want to come and do a mural.”
In the fall of 2012 the process began of turning a blank wall measuring 90-feet long and 14-feet high that takes up most of the west side of Hanke’s Sentry Foods, sitting right off a Highway 29 exit into a passage through Green Bay Packers history and the team’s communal relationship with its city and the state.
The maybe-inevitable discussion about a Packers-themed mural came up that fall, and it didn’t take WOW long to decide on pursuing one further. But there would be obstacles; more than they’d guess.
Diffor mixed herself into the campaign after sharing that her husband had bought her stock in the Packers. She’d attended the annual shareholder’s meeting in Green Bay and there, as one of the team executives mentioned some of the different organizations or projects the franchise had donated money to, she naturally thought of WOW.
“I thought, ‘We’re a non-profit. I’m not sure exactly what kinds of things they donate money to, but maybe they would be interested in doing that,’” Diffor said. That’s how she came to jokingly mention that she was a Packers shareholder to the rest of the WOW committee, and that’s how Diffor was put in charge of the Packers mural from that moment on.
WOW needed a space for their still-formulating idea. And the Hanke family, which has been serving the Wittenberg area’s grocery needs for more than 50 years, was an easy sell. Their new location on South Mission Street has only been open about a year, but they had made sure the west wall was mural-ready, just in case. Their previous building, closer to downtown, also had one on its exterior.
“They are huge Packers fans,” Diffor said of the Hankes. “When we asked them if they’d be interested in having a Packers mural on their wall, they were really excited about it.”
So that was simple. The space secured, the next step was a first meeting with the team.
“The Packers liked the idea, and told us what we could do and what we could not,” Diffor said. “They said we could not do anything with the NFL logo, but Packers things we could. Everything we did we ran it by them.”
WOW was granted permission to use the likenesses of Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver, and were steered away from some of the bigger-name players on the current team. All told, Diffor had no way to prepare herself for everything that would go into the process of coming up with a universally-agreed-upon design. There were multiple rounds of collaboration and double-checking between WOW, the Packers, and the artists tasked with mapping out the mural.
It got very real for Diffor when she was asked to sign a letter from a Packers attorney. WOW is not allowed to ever make a profit off the mural, and the letter made Diffor uneasy. She was worried about passersby snapping pictures and turning them into postcards to sell somewhere out of her jurisdiction.
“I was really worried, like, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I just do?’” Diffor said. “It was like a page-and-a-half, so I thought, ‘Jeez, I should probably read this,’ and I skimmed it and I was, like, shaking.”
Later on, the Packers reassured her that WOW’s role in the not-for-profit rule only directly applied to them. Anything else was out of their control, which eased Diffor’s mind. It was, for a small town simply looking to paint a mural for their local Packers fans, a learning experience in the areas of branding and big, NFL-sized business.
Along with the space, WOW also had a pretty good idea of the artist who they wanted to paint the Packers mural. Alicia Rheal, a Madison-based artist, had prior experience painting murals for WOW, and they approached her about the Packers idea.
“I said, ‘Heck yeah,’” Rheal said. “I don’t know anything about football, but I can glob paint, and I knew this other person who would be fun to work with.”
She asked to work with Carole Bersin, a Minneapolis-based artist whom she’d met before. Together, they entered into the cyclone of idea-sharing, going around and around with the WOW committee, who would go the Packers, then back to the drawing board, and so on.
Part of, maybe the biggest aspect of, the process of designing the Packers mural was finding a way for Rheal and Bersin to understand what the Packers mean to their fans. Rheal’s father was a football coach, but she was never a “sports kid,” as she says. At the start, it was like planning for two different murals entirely: a Packers mural and a football mural, the two ideas separated by more than a trademarked “G.”
“The artists knew nothing about football,” Diffor said. “Alicia said, ‘For me as far as sports go, pool is the only one I know.’ They’d never been to Green Bay, they knew nothing. So when I would try to talk to them about Packers fans, the craziness of what they wear – on one of the first sketches, they had the people dressed in blue, some in orange, red baseball hats, and I said, ‘It has to be green and gold. Everybody wears green and gold.’ So we just weren’t getting it.”
What Rheal and Bersin didn’t have in the sports fan department they more than made up for in artistic skill. Because this mural was born an idea of the WOW committee, and not a specific request from a sponsor, it’d require fundraising. For that, an incentive appeared on their blank wall: if someone gave a certain amount towards the mural, as a thank you they would get their face painted on the mural as a fan in the crowd.
Local advertisements were made for the mural, and Diffor made sure to clarify as the process went on that the donation amounts that would get your face on the mural weren’t the only contributions they’d accept – a $250 donation was the lowest amount that would get your likeness on the mural.
“It seemed like a ridiculous (amount), and it is a ridiculous amount. It was a very expensive mural,” Diffor said. “We kind of went around and around with that. And we did advertise for those (fan spaces), but someone made a comment one time about how expensive that was, so I put a letter to the editor in the newspaper, and said I needed to apologize for how I was wording that.
“We were not selling faces. We were just asking for donations, contributions, and if you wanted to contribute those amounts, the ‘thank you’ would be that the artists would draw your picture. So that changed the way people looked at it, I think.”
Between donations from fans and fundraising items provided by SUPERVALU, the franchise of the Hanke’s grocery store, the Packers mural was entirely crowd-sourced.
“Ultimately the whole thing was paid for by Packers fans,” Rheal said. “That’s pretty neat, that’s something a bit different from all the other murals, where they’d have a specific sponsor, or have various other fundraisers to get money for us.”
There was still the matter of capturing the spirit of the Packers and their fans. It’s clear to anyone living in that world, but it had to be captured all the same by the artists. Diffor’s husband, Jack, is a collector of Packers yearbooks, and has one from every season dating back to the 60s. He gave Rheal and Bersin a stack of study material. “We did a lot of research,” Rheal said.
Painting started on Labor Day. In August, the artists were in Wittenberg taking final measurements, making sure they had all the equipment they needed, generally getting ready for a painting deep-dive. They’d been studying and looking at pictures of the Packers from the past, of the present, of Lambeau Field, and had a better understanding of what everything was supposed to look like.
“They went through reading things and looking at the pictures, and that’s where they got a lot of their pictures, but they still weren’t getting it in their heads,” Diffor said. “So we wanted to take them to Green Bay.”
With training camp ongoing, and the spectacle that is training camp being maybe even a better indicator of Packers fandom than a game – because, as Allen Iverson once said, we’re talking about practice, here – Diffor saw a perfect opportunity.
“I said, ‘We want to take you to Green Bay, we’re going to take you to Packers practice, we’re going to eat at Curly’s Pub, we’re going to go to the Atrium, we want you to see it,’” Diffor said.
WOW bought Rheal and Bersin Packers T-shirts to wear, and the Diffors drove them over one August day. Training camp in Green Bay served up that atmosphere that they hadn’t yet had a handle on. The missing elements that fill the spaces around the information they’d been researching with feeling.
“The best part though, was when, towards the end of our designing part, well it was mostly completed – our artwork was finalized and approved – but we hadn’t actually seen Lambeau Field or anything like that,” Rheal said, “and Elaine and Jack (Diffor) took us to see a practice and it was like, ‘Okay, I got it.’
“Because it was pretty darn cool, just to see them coming out to their practice and all the kids lined up and the bikes. You just think, ‘Oh my God. And, you know, I may not be a football fan, but by God, I’m a Packers fan. This is just so wonderful, and it’s unique how the town just embraces them and they embrace the town back. It’s pretty cool.”
“They (Rheal and Bersin) watched the kids with the bikes – Packers practice had already started so the kids had already been waiting – so we watched the practice and they came out and did their waiting, all the kids with their bikes, and then the guy came out and lined all the bikes up, backed them up,” Diffor said. “They could not believe all the families there, all dressed in all their Packers stuff, and the little kids. They were like, ‘What is this?’
“And then, when they saw the players come out and motion to the kids, they watched that Packers thing with tears in their eyes, they could not believe it. So then we went to the Atrium and they took tons of pictures of Lombardi, Curly Lambeau, they took pictures of people taking pictures. We ate at Curly’s Pub. By the time we were done they both said, ‘Now I get it.’ They were just, the whole deal was just what they needed.”
Most of the plans already finalized, Bersin came up with one last, and necessary, addition before painting began.
“Carole woke up a couple days later and said, ‘You know, we have to have the bike, the kid on the bike in the mural,’” Rheal said. “That is so quintessential Packers loyalty fan love, that whole collaboration between the players and fans, so we squeaked a bike on and, to me, that was my favorite part: the bike, and just all that it stands for.”
Rheal sees herself as more a quick-and-dirty painter. Experience painting theater backdrops and sets for plays has conditioned her to this style: get paint on the wall fast, then go on with adjustments from there. With a tight timeframe – one they went over by a week or so; the mural was finished on Oct. 14, 2013 – and her skill in painting faces, it’s why her involvement in the mural made sense.
“My foundation is just get it up there, paint it fast, get it done, next,” Rheal says, “as opposed to the fine art side of things, where you want to slow down, look closely, finesse, get it just right. That frame of mind takes a lot longer than get it up there, put the paint on, boom boom boom, get it done, on to the next.”
Each half of the duo’s strengths complimented the other’s. Rheal could quickly get a segment of the mural started, get it up on the wall, allowing Bersin to come behind and sharpen it up, tweak and add finesse.
The artists usually worked between 8 to 10 hour days, then, staying in Wittenberg, they’d be prepping for the next step. Before putting anything up on the enormous wallspace, they’d do mock-ups on Photoshop, print them out and adjust those, then re-print as necessary. It wasn’t simply walking up to a wall, paintbrush in hand and image in head.
“It’s a whole different world when you’re working with something that size, the elements, and scaffolding,” Rheal said. “The whole thing was about scaffolding. We must have done miles and miles of climbing.”
Once they had a plan on paper, they used a projector – sort of like the one from your sixth grade science class – to show the image to the scale they wanted on the wall. Because of this, they had to work a lot of nights.
The Diffors were there a lot, helping to move the three sets of scaffolding. On one set, the projector rested; on the others, the artists were up against the wall.
“They would put the outline of the pictures all on an overhead – all the pictures were individual,” Diffor said, “but then to get the right size for everything – like they wanted the Acme Packer and Lombardi really big – so, they could say, ‘Okay we need it bigger or smaller,’ and then we’d move the scaffolding back or forward.
“So that’s how they did a lot of the outline. They had to do it at night because it would light up. They each had a marker and they’d just trace the picture.”
In the middle of September, the artists took a week away from the mural to rest and relax.
Tracing a likeness of Nelson or Driver or Lambeau Field’s bowl, creating those eye-catching images on the wall as the story of the Packers unfolds from left to right on the mural, was a major portion of their work. But the other was the delicate task of painting the donors who’d given enough money to have their faces on the mural. Some were locals, others were to be done in memory of someone who had passed. The artists were given photos of these people, and had to go from there.
“I would’ve loved to have spent like a full day on each face,” Rheal said, “but we ended up painting 50 faces, 50 specific faces in there, and if I would’ve spent a day on each face that’s 50 days, and that’s not including the rest of the mural, so it was very much, ‘Okay, we have set aside four weeks to do this,’ and we went over time by a week, week-and-a-half or so, but we still did pretty good.”
Onlookers would stop by to watch them work, sometimes donors would suggest little tweaks to their faces here and there. It was all part of the process. In one case, they got a serendipitous visitor. The Acme Packer player featured on the far left was nearly finished, but the artists were struggling with the specific problem of coming up with a generic face for the player.
A man named Gary Gauthier showed up one day and asked if he could donate money to have a face painted, that of his uncle, Wayland Becker. Becker attended Green Bay East High School and Marquette University and, from 1936-38, played wide receiver for the Packers.
Problem solved, as Rheal and Bersin offered to paint Becker’s likeness onto the body of the faceless Acme Packer, much to the delight of Gauthier.
For most people who stop to see the mural – “We see a lot of people stopping and taking pictures,” Diffor said – it’s a visually-arresting, both for its quality and for its length and overall size, display of the Packers and their surrounding community of fan support. Their history is there, “Lombardi Time” is set on the Lambeau Field clock, the fans pack the painting and Cheeseheads are worn and shareholder stock – signed by the artists and Bersin’s dog, Pepper, who was diligently in attendance at the mural every day – is on display.
For people in Wittenberg, they might know someone up there. It might be them. Either way, it’s real people on the wall, and real work behind the murals. As for the more-famous people who were painted – Nelson and Driver – Diffor still isn’t sure whether or not they’ve heard about the painting. She’d like them to know, so they aren’t asked about it someday without a clue as to what it is, and so she can be there to explain the details if they ever want to see it.
At night spotlights flip on and keep the Packers mural visible from the road, the one that you take when you find Wittenberg off the exit from Highway 29. The Packers’ presence is everywhere, but not everywhere like this. Wittenberg is still adapting to its decreased traffic flow. It is, like so many others like it on bitter winter days, a quiet and sleepy small Wisconsin town.
But just like so many of those small towns across Wisconsin, there are things to see and do if you’re looking. The charms and ways these communities differentiate themselves, how they push to stand apart, how the present day forces these difficult changes but also allows room for creations like Walls of Wittenberg, those are the seeds for a road trip. The highway moved around it but rather than put up walls, Wittenberg paints on them.