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Downtown murals add character to creative capital

Art off Washington Street pushes boundaries, tells stories, paints cityscape with vivid colors

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A few blocks off College Hill, Providence’s story pours into the streets through murals, which form a tangible fabric for the city that extends beyond Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design and onto downtown streets. Walking down Washington Street, pedestrians encounter a series of murals on building facades and across various avenues. These murals, integrated with shops, restaurants and galleries provide another way of looking at a city known for its smokestacks and industrial buildings.

“Using public art in urban design, we can help encourage people to slow down a little bit, to go out and explore the city a little and see what treasures they can find,” said Yarrow Thorne, founder and artistic director of The Avenue Concept, Providence’s first program designed to support public art.

Standing in a parking lot off Washington, two immense murals dwarf passersby. One depicts a melancholic man sitting at a table decorated with a checkered cloth and staring at a floating ring. Titled “She Never Came,” the mural by artist BEZT depicts a man waiting to propose to his girlfriend — who never showed up to dinner.

The artist painted a portrait of Nick Platzer, the mural curator for The Avenue Concept and an advisor to Thorne, Thorne said. BEZT decided he did not want to do a self-portrait and Platzer joked that he should paint his face instead — which the artist took seriously, allowing Providence citizens the opportunity to see a giant Platzer painted on the wall. “It’s pretty awesome,” Platzer added. “It’s definitely an ego-booster.”

The other mural, facing the man, portrays a little girl wearing her backpack entering a door into a “crazy mushroom fantasy world,” Platzer said. Painted by Natalia Rak, Polish muralist and then-fiancée of BEZT, the mural faces “She Never Came,” contradicting the more melancholic work with its array of bright pinks and purples. After the installation of these two murals downtown, local businesses noticed a rise in sales, Platzer said.

A couple of blocks away lies perhaps the most formidable of downtown mural endeavors. Shepard Fairey, a RISD graduate known for his ubiquitous “HOPE” portrait of former President Barack Obama, painted a tribute to Providence that illuminates the city’s landmarks in bold shades of red, black and white. “Providence Industrial” depicts a rugged and foreboding cityscape, paying tribute to Providence’s eclectic architecture. The piece was commissioned in 2010 by AS220, an organization that seeks to create a space for freedom of expression, said Shey Rivera, artistic director of AS220.

Adjacent to Fairey’s piece is another mural designed by Aaron Peterman and commissioned by AS220. This work contains an excerpt from the poem “Ode to Censorship” by Latinx performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, set against a dark backdrop. The bold colors play with Fairey’s mural, highlighting an artistic edge interlaced with the industrial aspects of the city through the lyrics’ glorification of a romantic alternative lifestyle. Gómez-Peña’s “work centers around the border — borders meaning ethnicity, geographical, gender, everything … like the borders of human (and) post-human,” Rivera added. “We thought it would be great to push the boundaries of the city a little and have that messaging up to inspire people to take risks.”

Nearby, “Three Waves for Coastway” by Amy Bartlett Wright depicts a serene ocean scene, highlighting Rhode Island’s relationship with the coast. Further down Washington Street, a series of murals decorate the space between Central High School and Classical High School.

For Platzer, these murals have accomplished a personal goal. According to The Avenue Concept’s website, he was expelled from Classical High School for doing graffiti. But Platzer had always thought about painting the tower between the two schools, he said. Years later, he managed to accomplish this goal in a professional setting when The Avenue Concept hired Mike Shida to paint the smoke tower. In the surrounding courtyard, murals create an imaginative backdrop for the school environment, featuring subjects from the depths of the ocean to the outskirts of space to abstract combinations of geometrical shapes.

On an alley off Westminster Street, a block from Washington, a particularly odd mural provides an unconventional juxtaposition of the old and new. On a backdrop of a historical scene of 1800s Providence, two fully-90’s-clad characters stand cross-armed, defacing the otherwise fairly traditional mural.

Legend had it that the unpaid artists plastered their images to the originally commissioned piece, said Erminio Pinque, who works at Big Nazo, the puppet performance company that hosts the mural.

Bonnie Lee Turner, who painted the mural with her partner of the art duo The Art of Life confirmed the story of the mural in an email to The Herald. “The question is: Why did we paint ourselves into the mural 13-feet-tall, scowling and holding our paint brushes?” she wrote. “Well, this is one of those odd little stories that often find their way into art history books. While not as horrible as Caravaggio killing his opponent over a dispute in a game of tennis, or as tense as Pope Julius whacking Michelangelo with his cane,” the mural has its own, vibrant history. Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, then Mayor of Providence, had been involved in a disagreement with the Police and Firearms Unions, who had commissioned the mural. He refused to provide further funding after The Art of Life had already done extensive research in the community and begun work on the mural, she wrote.

“We had talent, but we were inexperienced in writing air-tight contracts. And we made one simple mistake — we trusted a politician,” Turner wrote. Instead of painting over the mural entirely when they didn’t receive compensation for their work — a prospect the team considered — Turner and her partner decided to paint themselves on top of the original mural in order to honor the relationships they had built and the work they had put into the process.

“It turned out to be a good thing,” Turner wrote.

Aside from the massive murals around Washington Street, various independent murals, city projects and other forms of public art are scattered throughout the city. AS220, specifically, has facilitated projects with youth-artists in the city. Similarly, The Avenue Concept is currently planning a new mural in Providence.

“I firmly believe that when you walk into a city and there’s artwork all around, that’s a very big indicator that the city is progressive, that people care about it, that there’s activity happening and that people are invested in the betterment of the city,” Rivera said.

Correction: A previous version misstated the name of Erminio Pinque as Minio Pinque. Also, Big Nazo was referred to as a gallery. In fact, it is a puppet performance group. The Herald regrets the error.


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