Murals salute town’s history in larger-than life form
By Marcy Chapman
A herd of mooing cattle charge forward. The air is alive with sounds of “Yahoo, c’mon boys,” and thundering hooves rush past. The ground is pounded. Whips snap and crack. Droves of cattle are on the move.
The site of all this activity is a giant, sound-enhanced mural, 175 feet long by 30 feet high, in Lake Placid.
The massive artwork, “Cracker Trail Cattle Drive,” is floodlit by the sun on the side of a supermarket.
Forty-six of these splendid outdoor murals span more than 30,000 square feet in this arty central Florida town, recognized as the Caladium Capital of the World. As visitors turn nearly every corner, they encounter not only a plethora of the flowering plants, but another artistic conversation piece catches their eye.
Lake Placid’s mural project has revived the town’s economy and added to its charm, putting it on the map. After a nationwide search, Reader’s Digest recognized the town’s distinctiveness in 2013, voting Lake Placid “America’s Most Interesting Town.”
Remarkably, the first brushstroke of this creative undertaking began in Pennsylvania when Harriet and Bob Porter were introduced to each other by a friend while riding on a train. This lucky encounter 60 years ago resulted in a venture that initiated the awakening of a sleepy town.
The Porters, now married 58 years, have since journeyed many miles together. But as newlyweds, their traveling was limited and always involved a fishing trip.
Years later, wishing to offer his wife a vacation other than fishing, Bob said to Harriet, “This time I will take you anywhere you choose.”
Harriet chose Florida’s Sea World. During that trip, Bob decided he would come back to Florida and buy a place.
They did return. While visiting in Fort Myers in 1982, a forecasted storm forced a quick evacuation. The Porters scrambled inland to safety. They drove until they reached Lake Placid, the first inhabitable place they encountered, and stopped.
“It was serendipity,” Harriet says. “The trip resulted in our buying a small home in Lake Placid and staying in it only one night. And then we left and didn’t see it again for another year.”
From 1982 until 1992, the now-retired Porters enjoyed touring the country by motorcycle, from Key West to Canada. Riding through Vancouver Island, British Columbia, they happened upon Chemainus, known as “The Little Town That Did.”
They learned it had been brought back from financial disaster by its murals.
As they left, Bob announced to Harriet, “We’re going to paint murals in our town.”
More than 20 years ago, Harriet and Bob founded the Lake Placid Mural Society. Although they do not paint the murals, they inspired the ongoing effort.
“At that time, Lake Placid harbored about 15 derelict stores, walls covered with black mold and mildew,” recounts Harriet, president of the mural society.
After murals started appearing, a few business owners jumped on the bandwagon and began improving their property. This fueled more murals and the creation of businesses that now reap great rewards for the town, especially during tourist season. Restaurants, motels, gas stations and shops stay busy.
Harriet hosts guided bus tours of the murals.
“The hour-and-a-half tour often spurs people to return to visit Lake Placid again and again,” she says. “I frequently hear visitors comment that they learn something new every time they take the tour.
“When the bus tours first began, 45 to 55 people would come into town, and up to $1,500 would pour into the city in a matter of hours. As tourism has grown, we now see about 160 to 200 people a day in season. They come in droves. It is hard to keep count.”
Harriet and Bob also helped found the town’s 10,000-square-foot Caladium Arts and Crafts Cooperative, where visitors enjoy beautiful fine art, created mostly by area artists.
“The murals have had a very positive impact both on our community and our visitors,” says Eileen May, a member of the mural society board and executive director of the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce. “People come into the chamber and frequently say, ‘I just fell in love with your town.’”
The mural society works hand in glove with the chamber. Its welcome center houses the society’s Mural Art Gallery, where artists’ initial renderings of the murals are displayed.
Ideas for new works come mostly from the mural society. A piece of history is often the subject. The crux of the idea and the size of the wall chosen for the project are given to a selected artist who, granted free rein, determines the viewpoint and begins work on a black-and-white rendering. When approved, the artist submits a full-color painting created to scale.
Next, the project goes to the wall, becoming a largescale piece. Completion can take weeks to months.
New murals keep this an ongoing project, requiring the acquisition of funds to hire artists and buy supplies. Services of an artist range from $1,000 to $10,000. Maintenance of the works—buying paint and repainting—costs $4,000 to $6,000 per mural.
Initially, the mural society did typical fundraising events such as garage sales and dinners. Now, murals have sponsors that include families coming together to front a project. Hospitals, corporations and the society itself sponsor murals.
Support also comes from sales of self-guided tour books available in 16 locations around town.
“They are the society’s bread and butter,” says Harriet.
In the beginning, a few artists donated their time to paint the murals. Today, the job is a desirable paid position, gaining artists referrals for other jobs.
“Artists like to paint in Lake Placid because they never know where this exposure will lead them,” Harriet says. “Sometimes, in tourist season, there will be 60 people watching them paint.”
Thus far, 26 artists have participated, some from as far away as Oregon and British Columbia.
“Exposure for the artists has resulted in their artwork being shown as far away as the Czech Republic, Scotland and New Zealand, and it often ends up in publications,” Harriet says. “Professionals come to write about the murals for magazines, and videos have been put together that are seen all over the Internet.”
To augment the grand pieces, 17 smaller murals have been painted on trash containers and placed as companion pieces to the large wall murals.
Keith Goodson, a renowned artist from Auburndale, Florida, has painted many of the murals. He has a gallery in Lake Placid, where he paints, sells his art and teaches classes.
In January 2014, Keith completed a mural titled “Town of Murals: How It All Began” to honor Bob and Harriet. It is designed to represent all the murals and artists, past and future, with an unfinished portion reflective of future murals.
As the ideas for more murals come to light, the project will keep growing—and so will picturesque Lake Placid.
“Even the small projects—like the murals on trash containers—stir interest and bring people to look around town,” says Bob. “The more variety of art you can get up and out spurs merchants to get more artistic with stores, and the more murals there are, the more people talk.”
Muralist Takes on the Wall in Lake Placid
When he was 16 years old, Keith Goodson chose not to play football or take up typical teen pursuits. Instead, he retreated to his studio to paint.
“I am just a kid in a grown-up body,” Keith says. “I knew I had some kind of gift early on. I was always known as the artist. This was solidifying to me growing up. I knew what I was going to do, who I was and that I had been given a gift that needed to be perfected.”
The self-taught artist had his first art show at the age of 18.
“I learn and get inspiration from the techniques of other artists,” Keith says. “I glean from the past, starting with the art from the 15th century right up to today.”
At 20, he started working for a movie studio near Lakeland, Florida, painting murals and backdrops.
Getting wind of a town called Lake Placid that had two outdoor wall murals and planned more, Keith decided he wanted to paint the third one.
Bob and Harriet Porter—founder of the town’s mural society—reviewed his portfolio and hired him to paint the mural titled “Bassin’.”
“Everyone was so excited about my mural that I entered it into a national competition and won first place,” Keith says.
The man now known as the Lake Placid mural artist is responsible for 14 of the 46 murals gracing the town.
Following his early success, Keith and his wife moved to Lake Placid, and he started to work on more murals.
“I was a young guy trying to take on the wall when I began the 175-feet-wide Cracker Trail Cattle Drive mural,” Keith says with a laugh. “I just picked up a brush and started painting on that large wall with no grid or transfer. I was lucky I had enough wall at the end.”
It took him five-and-a-half months of grueling work to complete the job, climbing up and down the seven tiers of scaffolding that soared 30 feet high.
Today, Keith approaches each new creation more methodically. He uses sidewalk chalk to make a centering grid and cross sections to transfer his original design to the wall. He tries to paint in the lines without delay in case it rains.
“You need to lock in the lines fast,” he explains. “If rain sneaks up on you, you have to start again.”
Keith is responsible for much of the restoration and maintenance the massive artworks require, and he creates new pieces.
“The type of paint muralists use has evolved over the years as a result of new, improved chemistry,” says Keith. “Currently, murals are painted with theme paint—the same as theme parks use. It is a heavy acrylic emulsion and very durable. Final heavy coats of a vinyl sealer provide a second layer of UV protection. This is the key to longevity.”
The designs for Keith’s murals result from his gift for creation. After focusing on a particular subject and doing some research, he retreats to assimilate it.
“I go off and relax and let the information digest in my mind,” he says. “Then I get that spark of creativity and go into the studio and put it all in sketch form. At that point, it goes to Harriet and Bob Porter and the Mural Society board for approval.”
In addition to viewing and having the opportunity to buy Keith’s art at his new gallery, visitors can watch him paint and take classes from him.
“The fulfilling work I have done in Lake Placid has really helped move my art career forward,” Keith says. “An artist doesn’t have to speak as much as his portfolio does. My endeavors here have enabled me to grow.”
For more information about Keith Goodson and his work, visit www.keithgoodson.com.