By Alex Riese
It’s an ordinary fence, its wood weathered after exposure to the elements. To most, restoring that fence would be a nagging task on a honey-do list. To Kitchener artist Dave Whitley, it’s an opportunity to add some colour to his neighbourhood. At the beginning of the year, Whitley decided to heed his wife’s advice to paint something on the long stretch of worn-out fence that has surrounded his family’s home for 10 years. After purchasing several large pieces of pressure-treated plywood, Whitley began the arduous process of painting a 25-panel mural of images that he associates with dreams he had as a child. So far, he’s completed seven of the panels, with an eighth panel currently being produced. “To have this project finished by July, I’m a bit behind,” he said. “I hope to have one panel a week done, so I’ve got a lot of painting ahead of me.” Even from the sidewalk, those walking on Wren Court in Kitchener can easily spot Whitley’s workplace. In a subdivision of mostly grey and white houses, the caricature of Nintendo’s most famous heroes, the Mario Brothers, hangs on a detached garage on a fairly large lot. A screen door on the front left side of the garage looks curiously modern beside the aged wood of the garage. If you were to venture inside, you would see an oil-paint portrait of a young boy, a table with acrylic paints laid out, waiting to be applied to the already stunning mural and a bespectacled man in a newsboy cap and an apron covered in the accidental graffiti of acrylic paints, applying delicate brush strokes to a cartoonish rendition of a masked Bigfoot wearing vibrant red Converse shoes. This garage is where Whitley spends 15 to 16 hours on a good work day, where he blasts the music of classic blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Stevie Ray Vaughan to keep himself awake, and where he slaves over the same sketch for hours on end until the end result is nothing short of perfection. And yet, most of the work he does in this garage is work that nobody will see. “I thought, well, I work in here a lot, and nobody ever sees what I do, so why not put it out there for everybody to see?” The mural itself is one of the largest undertakings Whitley has ever dreamed up. When completed, it will span 100 feet by eight feet tall, and will be clearly visible from the sidewalk on River Road, where people can drive by and admire it, take pictures beside it, even walk up and touch it if they want. It began as a series of fairy tale scenes, but that idea was scrapped for his current theme to provide greater expression of individuality. Whitley began furiously painting dreamlike depictions of sea serpents, a dinosaur roller-coaster, a caricature of the fairy tale The Tortoise and the Hare, and a sly reptilian creature wearing a wizard’s hat. Whitley designed these images to recreate the fascinations of youth and stimulate the endless imaginations of children. “When kids talk about the dreams they have, they may frighten them, they may ask ‘why is this happening,’ but for me, it was always kind of a cool thing,” he said. “But we all have really odd dreams and bizarre things that happen in our minds.” Before he could even prime a single board, Whitley had to get approval from the City of Kitchener to display the finished work on his fence. City bylaws require all street art to be displayed without signatures or any indication of the name of the artist or the work would be considered an advertisement. The city approved Whitley’s plan and provided him with some money to get the project up and rolling. The rest will be raised via a Kickstarter campaign, which Whitley hopes will fund the remaining boards and supplies for the mural. So far, he has raised over $3,800 of $6,500 needed to complete the project. Because he does not want to profit off the work, he will donate any leftover money to the Canadian Cancer Society, as a tribute to his late brother-in-law who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. The campaign ends on April 1, and he’s holding his breath. “Kickstarters are an all or nothing kind of thing,” he said. “If you don’t get what you want and you don’t get enough pledges, you don’t get anything.” Though he spends most of his time working in his garage, Whitley is a devout family man. He stayed at home to raise his kids for 12 years, and says that time was the most fun he’s ever had. “When you go somewhere, kids always have a million questions and opinions about everything,” he said. “It was a fun time, and I was really hoping to revisit that through this work.” The word has spread quickly about Whitley’s artistic ability, and he has had to turn down several offers from people who want things painted for them. For now, this project remains his primary focus until its anticipated completion in July. Through his 48 years on this planet, Whitley has not lost that youthful spirit and imagination, and he dedicates each brush stroke to helping the people around him maintain or recover theirs. “It’s OK to be silly, it’s OK to do something different,” he said. “And I hope to inspire children to know they can take their box of crayons or their paints and just play, and nobody can really tell them what the rules are.” To help fund the purchase of supplies for the mural, go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/262051472/the-cats-pajamas-community-mural-by-david-whitley/description.