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PROVIDENCE — On one wall in the city, you can see John Lewis marching for voter rights, and while snapping a photo of that mural with your iPhone, you can register to vote.
A few blocks away, you can gaze up at the striking image of a young Narragansett Indian woman holding a portrait of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett and Wampanoag elder and historian.
And in another part of downtown, you can come face to face with the visage of Breonna Taylor, one of many murals that were painted on boarded-up storefronts after George Floyd’s death.
In Providence, the brick walls of the city provide a broad canvas for a vibrant array of street murals, reminding us of our history while also speaking to the struggles of the day.
And some murals are just plain fun. One wall near Classical High School lets you snap a selfie while standing between a pair of huge colorful wings.
The Avenue Concept, the state’s leading public art program, is behind many of the murals. Founded in Providence in 2012, it has installed or exhibited more than 170 works of public art while raising $1.45 million for the projects.
“Art can be a lot of things,” said Nicholas Platzer, mural program manager for The Avenue Concept. “Early on, we wanted to create beautiful art for art’s sake. As people got more comfortable, we wanted to tackle some big issues, and that is one of the great things about murals: They’re publicly accessible and can get people thinking.”
During the pandemic, the street murals have helped to fill a void, he said.
While the coronavirus forced many stores, museums, and other cultural institutions to close, “you could still go walk about town and see murals and sculpture," Platzer said. "One of the biggest values of public art is it never closes.”
The Avenue Concept has designed a pair of self-guided tours of sculptures and murals around Providence – one tour for downtown and one for the South Side/West End.
At most stops, plaques provide the name of the artwork and the artist. If you have a smartphone, you can point the camera at a QR code (the black and white square with dots in it), and it will send you to The Avenue Concept website for more information about the artists and videos of their work.
Umberto “Bert” Crenca, founder of the AS220 nonprofit community arts center in downtown Providence, said Philadelphia has long had the country’s best mural arts program. But he said Providence has been making steady progress as the artistic community has worked with city government over the years.
“There has been momentum building for more than 20 years around public art,” Crenca said. “I think it’s great. Based on the evolution of it, it’s probably better than ever.”
So hit the pavement and, for starters, check out these 10 street murals:
VOTE, 1 Ship St.
The November election is fast approaching, so there could be no more timely topic than the giant VOTE mural painted on a wall at 1 Ship St., facing the new Wexford Innovation Center at 225 Dyer St.
This summer, The Avenue Concept hired four local artists of color to paint one letter of the word: V by Kendel Joseph (Lucid Traveler); O by Jessica Brown (The Lady J); T by Angie Gonzalez (AGonza); and E by a military veteran who goes only by his artistic name, ABOVE.
“It’s very timely,” Platzer said. “One thing that keeps coming up is that we need to be an active part of the democratic process.”
The O in the word VOTE depicts people marching behind a life-sized, detached cutout of the late US Representative John Lewis, who is pictured in the trench coat he wore while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
“You can go down and take a photo with John Lewis and post it with the hashtag #IStandWithJohnLewis,” Platzer said. “It’s making things a little more interactive and exciting.”
In the mural, one of the people behind Lewis is holding a sign that reads “Your voice is your vote.” Another person is holding a sign displaying a QR code, and if you take out your smartphone and point the camera at it, you will be connected to the Rhode Island secretary of state’s website, where you can register to vote.
“I love the mural. It is inspiring,” Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said. “First and foremost, it is a beautiful piece of art, but it also is an expression of civic engagement. It’s absolutely brilliant.”
She urged people to use use the QR code on the mural to register to vote or, if they’re already registered, to check that their address is correct. “Some people move and forget to let us know,” she said. “Help us keep the voter rolls up to date.”
SELFIE WALL, corner of Broad and Wickham streets
The brick wall of a barber shop provides the canvas for a pair of gigantic multi-colored wings. Painted by the artist James Mustin, this mural provides another opportunity for a selfie and social media post.
“Everyone obsesses about social media these days, and selfie walls are really popular,” Platzer said. “It allows you to explore Upper South Providence, a neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of positive attention. So we are encouraging people to explore the neighborhood, look around, and be excited.”
STILL HERE, 32 Custom House St.
One of the city’s most prominent street murals, Still Here, by the Baltimore muralist Gaia, depicts Lynsea Montanari, a member of the Narragansett tribe and an educator at the Tomaquag Museum, holding a picture of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett elder who founded the museum 60 years ago.
“That was a really important piece,” Platzer said. “The reason he chose to portray Lynsea in contemporary clothing is the concept that the indigenous people are still here – they still exist and they still hold onto their heritage.”
THE REVOLUTION STARTS IN THE EARTH WITH THE SELF, 1055 Westminster St.
A less prominent street mural, by Jess X. Snow and Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn, is on the side of a building that contains Providence Community Acupuncture.
“The concept is inspired by the struggles of both Latinx and Palestinian peoples at the borders between the US/Mexico and Israel/Palestine,” The Avenue Concept explains. “It depicts the silhouetted profiles of Providence-based, queer Guatemalan organizer Vanessa Maldonado Flores and New Orleans-based Palestinian organizer Amira, as well as plant and animal life symbolic of the ways that solidarity can cross borders and break through walls.”
SHEPARD FAIREY MURAL, 91 Clemence St.
No discussion of street murals in Providence is complete with mentioning Shepard Fairey, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate who catapulted to fame with his “André the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign and who created the iconic “HOPE” portrait of Barack Obama.
Last year, Fairey created his 100th large-scale mural – a portrait of Anjel Newmann, director of programs and youth director of AS220. Her image is surrounded by the words “Creativity,” “Justice,” and “Equity.”
“Given the words on it and considering the momentum happening now, it was prophetic,” Crenca said, referring to the current push for racial justice and equity. “It was a conscious decision to have Anjel be front and center, and it’s emblematic of how AS220 intends to provide opportunities and enable people to self-realize.”
BREONNA TAYLOR MURAL, corner of Eddy Street and Fountain Street
Kendel Joseph (Lucid Traveler), who painted the V in the VOTE mural, also created murals of Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot in March when Louisville police entered her home using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation.
Platzer said the Taylor mural and others were painted on the pieces of wood that store owners put over windows during protests stemming from the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Rather than being thrown out afterward, some murals have been displayed both downtown and at the Jamestown Arts Center, he said. “It was a nice progression from something with negative energy that turned into a positive,” he said.
WE ARE ONE FLOCK, 35 Weybosset St.
Amy Bartlett Wright, a Rhode Island-based muralist and science illustrator, depicts migratory birds in flight, both in the form of a painted mural and painted wood sculptures affixed to the front of the Providence National Bank facade.
“The concept is timely social commentary with the idea that we are one flock,” Platzer said.
It is one of two new murals marking the fifth anniversary of rotating murals at the site. The project is a partnership with Paolino Properties, which sponsors new murals each year on the front and back of the historic structure.
YOUNG, GIFTED, & BLACK, 35 Weybosset St.
The back of the facade is a tribute to the legendary singer and activist Nina Simone, painted by Rhode Island artist Sagie Vangelina. Simone performed and spoke at major civil rights events, including the Selma to Montgomery marches.
“Sagie wanted to pay tribute to someone who has been an icon and a huge influence to her,” Platzer said. “And everything that Nina Simone stood for is obviously poignant right now, as well."
BATTLECAT, 16 Booth St.
Painted by Austrian artist Nychos, this massive mural on the side of the Jones Moving and Storage building portrays the endangered snow leopard.
At first, some people are shocked by the skull, bones, and veins depicted in the mural, but Platzer said Nychos is know as a “street surgeon” who is interested in precisely representing the anatomy of animals that he dissects in his art. He said a nurse who lives nearby came out to see the mural when it was being painted and commented on how accurate it is.
MISTY BLUE, 116 Orange St.
The Los Angeles artist Andrew Hem is the son of refugees from Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and he was inspired by Providence’s Cambodian community to create the image of a young girl he encountered in Cambodia, set against a dream-like forest full of trees and fireflies.
Platzer said Providence is particularly quiet on Sundays. So if you are "down in the dumps or feeling claustrophobic” amid the pandemic, he said, get out of the house on Sunday to explore the city and see this public art.