PROVIDENCE — Providence is about to get a new sculpture honoring Edward Mitchell Bannister, one of the founders of the Providence Art Club and the first known Black painter to win an art award in the United States.
Artist Gage Prentiss, the creator of the Bannister sculpture, and Rhode Island PBS Weekly co-host Pamela Watts appeared on the Rhode Island Report podcast, discussing plans to unveil the sculpture on Sept. 10 during PVDFest.
The life-sized bronze sculpture, which depicts Bannister sketching on a bench, will be placed in Market Square in front of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Watts, who did an episode about how Bannister led a group that founded the Providence Art Club nearly 150 years ago, described how Bannister won an award for his painting at America’s first world’s fair in 1876.
“It was the Philadelphia centennial, and there were hundreds of artists that had been entered in a competition there,” she said. “When the judges went to announce the winner, he walked up and they were shocked because they did not expect it to be a Black man. It caused a great sensation: What are they going to do? And they were going to rescind his award.”
But Watts said other artists, who were all white, threatened to withdraw unless Bannister was given the award.
Bannister had been inspired by a New York Herald article that suggested Black people could appreciate art but were unable to produce it, Watts said. “He said, ‘Watch me,’” she said. “He wanted to disprove them. And so less than 10 years later, he wins this huge award, and his certificate of first place is one of the most prized possessions in the Providence Art Club.”
Prentiss said he was invited to a show featuring Bannister’s paintings in 2018, and he was so inspired that he ended up proposing a statue to raise public awareness about Bannister.
“When I first got to see his artwork, I was just blown away by it,” he said, citing his landscapes. “He would make an environment that just held onto light. It would make you feel an atmosphere of possibility — of something about to happen and this kind of contained charge energy I found really kind of amazing and delicious to look at.”
Prentiss said sculptures such as this help people learn about and connect with history. “I’d like to see more bronze representational sculpture out in cities glorifying the artists and the writers and the thinkers and the community activists and the people that have been ignored, or passed on, definitely because of racism and classism and other things,” he said.
Watts said the Providence Art Club is planning a series of events around the unveiling of the sculpture, coinciding with WaterFire Providence on Sept. 9 and PVDFest Sept. 8-10.
“Barnaby Evans, the artist and creator of WaterFire, is going to project the works of Bannister so that people can be immersed in his genius,” she said. “There is a parade leading up to the unveiling that’s going to start on the pedestrian walkway led by some puppets and artists and people who want to make a great and joyful sound.”
On Sept. 10, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley will lead a parade begins at the 195 District Park in front of the Wexford building at 12:30 p.m. The parade will proceed through Innovation Park, over the Providence River via the Michael Van Leesten Pedestrian Bridge, and arrive at Market Square at about 1 p.m. A speaking program will begin at 1:30 p.m. Smiley will declare it “Edward Mitchell Bannister Day,” and the new sculpture will be unveiled.
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