A new mural on the east-facing wall of 32 Custom House Street in downtown Providence began illuminating the cityscape this month, as Baltimore-based artist Gaia completed work on “Still Here,” a large-scale work commissioned by Providence non-profit The Avenue Concept.
Covering the entire facade of the building, the mural features a woman in a patch of bright-yellow sunflowers, strawberries, cattails and red-winged blackbirds. This woman is Lynsea Montanari, a member of the Narragansett tribe and an educator at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, according to a press release issued by The Avenue Concept. Her eyes are directed straight ahead at the passing cars of Memorial Boulevard, the Providence River and the pedestrians on South Water Street, and she tenderly holds a black-and-white photograph of Princess Red Wing, described by the Tomaquag Museum’s website as a “Narragansett/Pokanoket Wampanoag historian and educator” who founded the museum sixty years ago.
Gaia bases his work “heavily in community and historical facts,” said Nicholas Platzer, the 2-D program manager for The Avenue Concept. His planning process, Platzer explained, includes researching the location, reaching out for community support and searching for active community members — such as Montanari — whom he involves in his composition and design process. The wall is located close to Weybosset Street, “named for an indigenous footpath, and a trading location that later became one of the first custom houses in America,” the Avenue Concept press release explained.
This process made Gaia, an internationally renowned muralist whose works adorn buildings in major cities such as Seoul, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, and London, the perfect candidate for this project, Platzer said. The owner of the wall — a retaining wall that once belonged to a building that stood in what is now a parking lot — wanted a mural that was figurative but told a story with “layers and depth to it,” Platzer said.
Gaia focused on “erasure,” Platzer said, paying particular attention to the experiences of indigenous people in Rhode Island. This inspired The Avenue Concept and Gaia to reach out to the Tomaquag Museum, which immediately joined the project as part of their sixtieth anniversary celebration. “If we’re going to depict this history of this indigenous community here, we don’t want to just be doing it in a vacuum — we want to partner with someone in that community who can speak to the history,” said John Taraborelli of The Avenue Concept.
“A city without public art is kind of ridiculous,” Platzer said and emphasized the ways in which public art “inspirespeople and gets (them) to stop — even for just a minute.”
Camille Champ, a front-of-house supervisor at the Knead Doughnuts Custom House location, described the mural as “absolutely breathtaking,” acknowledging the number of people she has witnessed admiring the mural on her drive into work.
“That’s what public art does — it kind of interjects itself into people’s lives,” Platzer said, adding that it is different than art found in a gallery or a museum, which requires an individual to intentionally look at art.
Other murals commissioned by The Avenue Concept include those by Polish street artists BEZT, “She Never Came,” and Natalia Rak, “Adventure Time,” which face each other in the parking lot at the corner of Mathewson and Washington Streets. Another new mural, by The Avenue Concept’s 2018 2-D Resident Local Artist Sam White, “Party Shark — Seals Galore,” continues the nonprofit’s rotating mural project on the facade of the Providence National Bank, where it will remain for one year. This is the third mural to be introduced to this wall, replacing Umberto Crenca’s “Takes All Types.”
Taraborelli hopes that this mural will help to spread the visibility of not just the nonprofit, but also the city of Providence, as The Avenue Concept installations have previously garnered a large presence on social media.“The ones we’ve done until now have been kind of tucked around corners, and you have to go look for them, but this is one that just tens of thousands of people are going to drive by or walk by every day … that visibility is huge for us,” he said.