Over a hundred hand-drawn maps of Providence adorn the walls of the public gallery in the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.
University students and other members of the Providence community created the maps for “Map It Out – Providence,” an exhibit that opened Sept. 26 in collaboration with Toronto-based artists Gwen MacGregor and Sandra Rechico.
Curated by Marisa Angell Brown, assistant director of programs at the JNBC, the exhibition displays the maps, which were created during workshops that MacGregor and Rechico held earlier in the month. Brown explained that this exhibition is part of a larger, yearlong social project called “Year of the City,” which invites people to “see Providence in a new way.”
For Brown, the exhibit encompasses one of the key aspects of public humanities by “bridging the kind of research that happens within the University and then the life outside of (it).” She outlined the importance of maps in synthesizing valuable data and presenting it in an appealing and accessible way. “Ask someone to draw something, and you’ll often get a ‘No, I’m not an artist.’ Ask someone to map something and they’ll say ‘Yeah, give me a pen,’” she said.
MacGregor expanded on this idea, explaining that the exhibition acts as a way to explore “how we think about ourselves moving through the space and the places we live in” and challenges “ideas of what we think a map is.”
This Providence exhibit acts as the fourth installment in MacGregor and Rechico’s collaborative “Map It Out” project, which began in Berlin in 2011. The artists, who have worked together since 2006, came up with the idea after experimenting with galleries and public spaces when they were in Berlin presenting another project. MacGregor said the project “had a really organic life” as they were invited to recreate the interactive exhibit in Long Island, New York and then again in Cardiff, Wales as part of an academic conference.
What was most interesting for MacGregor was the “different vibe” they encountered in each location. The groups of people that responded and their varying levels of enthusiasm to the project were key highlights for the artists. In addition to this, the artists noted that there was often a “visual shorthand” that was emblematic of the city, recurring in many maps; in Cardiff, for instance, many people would include the Cardiff Castle.
In Providence, MacGregor said it was interesting to see how “each place was quite different in the way people responded and who responded.” During the Rhode Island Heritage Festival, for example, many parents saw it as an activity oriented toward children and expressed surprise when they were also asked to make maps. When MacGregor and Rechico worked with the city planners, they noticed a friendly competitiveness among participants in the details individuals included in their maps.
“It’s eye-opening to see how people think about their city and what moving through it means to them,” said Nikki Wong ’23. She mentioned how she was intrigued by the varying level of realism in each of the maps on the boards, and how personal, or impersonal, they could be.
Prior to the opening of the exhibit, MacGregor and Rechico had an “action packed” residency between Sept. 18 and Sept. 28, during which they worked with the Providence community at the Dorcas Place International, the Rhode Island Heritage Festival, 44 Westminster Street and the Sankofa Market to produce the maps on display. MacGregor highlighted how grateful she is for Marisa Angell Brown’s existing relationships with the community and how integral they were to the project.
While the artists are no longer in Providence, Brown said she welcomes everyone to visit the gallery and add their own maps so “we can continue to grow the collection and see how people think about the city.”
Drawing her own map helped Brown “realize something about myself and about how I understand my own day … through relationships rather than through space and location,” she said. She hopes that all who visit gain such insight themselves.
“Map It Out – Providence” is open from 10am to 4pm, Monday through Friday, and will be on display in the public gallery at the JNBC until Nov. 14. There will also be gallery talks on Oct. 18 and Nov. 14 and a reception night on Oct. 17 from 5pm to 9pm. Admission to the exhibit is free.