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Public art project illuminates cemetery

‘SouthLight’ memorializes Providence residents as part of RISD Wintersession course

“Emma A. Ellis. 1860-1918. We miss you most who loved you best.” Tucked away in a back corner of Grace Church Cemetery, this epitaph is elusive by day and even more so by night. But last Friday night, the touching remembrance was activated once more in shining blue light for all of Providence to see.

The occasion, a two-night environmental public art installation,  “SouthLight,” was produced in a collaboration between the Rhode Island School of Design and Social Light Movement — “a philanthropic movement … founded in order to create a network for light designers … to collaborate on the issue of improving lighting for people,” according to the group’s website. The work was developed under the guidance of Social Light Movement cofounder Elettra Bordonaro and her students in “Light, the City and the Community,” a course offered during RISD’s Wintersession.

The result brought the graveyard to life. Music — mellow one moment and Linkin Park the next — coursed through the cemetery as pedestrians wandered the grounds, which were lit by a mixture of blue LED lights and candles. Pathways funneled community members through fresh snow toward the burial grounds. Trees were strewn with LEDs from root to branch, creating a dome — an alien shape among the usual rectangular and obelisk surroundings. Video footage projected onto the underbelly of these domes relayed the stories of Providence’s inhabitants through the centuries.

The lighting project, like Wintersession in general, encouraged students to expand their horizons. Especially for those with very specific majors, “Wintersession is a good time to try something else,” said Kory Almryde, a RISD student and member of the class.

Coming in, “none of us knew anything about lighting,” said Felicia Chiao, another RISD student and class member.

The first three weeks of the six-week course focused on design including “gathering community input (and) working on lighting,” Almryde said. Next, each member of the class “chose a field,” he said, adding that his responsibilities lay in light, sound and community outreach.

The course was designed to have a communal impact, something Almryde found appealing, he said.

The lighting design element attracted Chiao to the course, but she also appreciated the unique social opportunity. “In most RISD classes we stay in our studios and work with ourselves,” so it was nice to use skills off College Hill, she said.

Social Light Movement, whose members come from Sweden, Great Britain, Germany and Italy and have “different professional backgrounds,” hold “lots of workshops in Europe,” but this marks the “first project in the U.S.,” Bordonaro said.

The class arrived at the idea to use the cemetery to represent the progression of time in Providence. The roots, trunks and branches of the trees were intended to signify graves, current community members and future residents, respectively, Almryde said.

The most important question for the class, Social Light Movement and for Providence itself is where this project and others like it can go from here.

Mayor Angel Taveras recently announced that the city will fund programs like this one by nonprofit community and arts organizations this summer, according to Providence’s official website. The funds are part of “Celebrate Providence! 2014,” an initiative to “foster a sense of community pride,” the site said.

Bordonaro said the group plans to propose SouthLight to the competition.

For now, she will return to Europe, so the initiative is left in the hands of RISD students, groups such as Stop Wasting Abandoned Property and inhabitants who for two nights witnessed a neglected space integrate itself back into Providence relevance.

“The hope is that because (SouthLight) brings attention to this area, they will preserve it better,” said Chiao. The students “have been talking about a proposal,” she said, adding that they had a successful first meeting with the city to discuss the project and will meet again later this month. Other than “Celebrate Providence! 2014,” those in the meeting, including interested sponsors such as Waterfire, will determine whether SouthLight could become an annual event, she said.

“All the equipment will be kept in case it is needed again,” Chiao said.


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