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RI ARTS

A mural honoring LGBTQ+ icons is standing tall in Providence

The mural by New York City-based artist Brian Kenny was commissioned by the Avenue Concept, and features the faces of prominent Rhode Islanders

Artist Brian Kenny works on his mural at the Open Door Health clinic.
Artist Brian Kenny works on his mural at the Open Door Health clinic.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Multidisciplinary artist Brian Kenny is known for his intricate, freehand drawings, which often celebrate queer identity. His work can be found in a range of places, from J. Crew’s headquarters in New York to M3 hotels in Switzerland to art installations in Dallas and Boston.

His latest creation appears in Providence: a massive mural that honors the experiences and icons of the LGBTQ+ community of Rhode Island, and beyond.

In the Upper South Providence neighborhood stands the newly opened Open Door Health, Rhode Island’s first LGBTQ+ health clinic, located at the Pearl Street Lofts building. The Avenue Concept, a privately funded public art program founded more than a decade ago, commissioned Kenny to create a large-scale mural on the side of the building.

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Open Door Health opened March 2, 2020 and is now Rhode Island’s  first health clinic that specializes in primary care, sexual health and other health initiatives for the LGBTQ+ community. Brian Kenny is working on a large-scale mural at the clinic. He was commissioned by the Avenue Concept.
Open Door Health opened March 2, 2020 and is now Rhode Island’s first health clinic that specializes in primary care, sexual health and other health initiatives for the LGBTQ+ community. Brian Kenny is working on a large-scale mural at the clinic. He was commissioned by the Avenue Concept. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The 1,700-square-foot mural, painted in blue, pink and white, echoes the colors of the trans flag.

“This part of our community needs the most visibility. If I can celebrate [Trans people] as large as possible, that’s what I’ll do,” Kenny told the Globe in a recent interview.

The piece features truly Rhode Island symbols and icons representing “transformation,” such as blue violets (the state flower), butterflies, and sea life such as coral, octopus tentacles, and starfish. Snakes wrap around body parts and in places where there would have been open space to symbolize “knowledge and divine feminine energy,” said Kenny. One striking element is that of classic Lady Liberty —depicted as a man.

There are 15 faces drawn throughout the mural, many of them prominent Rhode Islanders, including Richie DeFilippo, an Open Door Health board member who is the 2021 winner of Mr. Gay World Rhode Island, and Chris Harris, a concert promoter and co-owner of Providence’s Club EGO, who died after a battle with cancer in early 2019 at the age of 51.

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Elle Moxley, founder and executive director of the The Marsha P. Johnson Institute and co-founding member of Black Lives Matter Network, is also featured prominently, as is Cristina Hayworth, an activist during the 1969 Stonewall riots who lead the first Puerto Rican pride parade in the early 1990s. Local artists and Avenue Concept staffers are also featured.

Kenny said he initially planned to draw realistic portraits with the trans flag. But in a nod to gender fluidity, he said, he opted to go with his signature line-drawing style, and to have the colors to flow “like the inside of a lava lamp.”

“I wanted to layer all of these colors and icons together to really just add to this sense of ‘flowing,’” said Kenny.

He said he’s never done a mural of this size in this style on this type of surface -- the brick exterior of a large building. Other large murals, such as the one he created for the PRIED exhibition at The Society of Arts & Crafts in Boston, were on flat surfaces, he said.

Artist Brian Kenny works on his mural at the Open Door Health clinic.
Artist Brian Kenny works on his mural at the Open Door Health clinic. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“I usually from free-hand it and make it up as I go along. This one took more thought,” said Kenny, who created a mock-up of the mural on his iPad and then projected it onto the brick wall. “The up side to the line drawing, too, is that I get to incorporate a lot more people. I want to let more of the community, and more trans people, to really shine in this.”

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He added, “This is my first time in Providence, ever... I definitely want to come back and do more.”

Kenny’s work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, theaters, and alternative venues across the US, but also in Canada, Russia, Israel, and around Europe. He uses an array of media, including drawing, painting, textile, video, and performance work, and his work has often been described as “autobiographical” and reflective of queer identity with “shifting societal perceptions” about gender, sexuality and politics.

While he’s been working on this mural, he also has a solo exhibit (”I’mmaterial”) at TW Fine Art in Brooklyn, which features an exploration of queerness, sexuality, and American identity.

But this commission at Open Door Health, he said, had a symbolic meaning for him.

“I’m a patient of an LGBT health clinic in New York myself,” he said. “I understand the value of getting medical attention suited to queer people, who understand who you are, and can help you without bias.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.