If These Walls Could Talk

The stories behind the famous faces in Providence

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In Providence, art is prolific and greatly appreciated. Home to institutions like RISD and WaterFire, the city isn’t named the Creative Capital for nothing. Art is everywhere in Providence. Take a walk around downtown and you’ll find a slough of larger-than-life murals and photos. In 2010, renowned artists like RISD alumnus Shephard Fairey ushered in a new era of narrative street art. His colorful mural captured his highly personal experience in Providence after living in the city for years. Since then, the street art landscape has evolved and changed. This new art aims to bring a new level of awareness to the cultural landscape of our city.

Art inspires discussion and debate, but the medium itself is a mode of preservation, a way to tell stories and reflect life. “Whose stories get preserved?” might be a provocative question. It’s one that the street artists and photographers in Providence have brought to the forefront of our city, emblazoning walls, utility boxes, and throughways with vibrant colors and faces that are not often the subjects of common historical discourse. This ever-growing body of work provides representation to people and cultures in the area and shines the light on stories untold.

Probably one of the most recognizable pieces of street art in Providence is Gaia’s Still Here. The portrait of Lynsea Montanari, a young Narragansett woman, looms large over the cityscape on Weybosset Street. When international artist Gaia was approached by The Avenue Concept to produce a mural for the city, the artist decided to focus on the idea of erasure. His work brings the contemporary Native American experience to the forefront of public consciousness today while harkening back to an unjust history.

“When we talk about the preservation of a city, we generally tend to focus on sort of the white European history, and we very often neglect the longer history, which involves indigenous people,” says Nick Platzer, 2D Art Director and Mural Program Manager at The Avenue Concept. All too often, Nick laments, the general public only gets one side of the story. Painting a portrait of Lynsea was a chance to change the narrative.

Gaia’s concept required extensive research and conversations with the Native American tribes here in Rhode Island about what would be included in the depiction. Both the artist and The Avenue Concept wanted to ensure that the mural accurately represented the locl indigenous community, and Lynsea was their guide. Take a look at Still Here and you’ll find strawberries, deer, flowers, and birds that are culturally significant to the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes. In the portrait, Lynsea is also holding a smaller photo of Princess Red Wing, founder of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter and vociferous indigenous rights activist. The actual placement of the mural itself is also meaningful. According to Nick, Weybosset Street is the only curved throughway in the area because the road follows an old trail that led to a Native American trading post down by the river; Still Here now sits at almost that exact location.

Too often, Nick says, the indigenous story portrayed in art is one of violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak. However, Gaia’s art exists to push back against this, becoming a symbol of resiliency. Says Nick, “Through all the stuff that we did, this community is still here, and it’s extremely strong.” Lynsea’s clothing in the work exemplifies this: You’ll notice that her garb is not traditional, but rather everyday street clothes. Nick says that this was done on purpose to let people know how Native Americans dress today, that they are still, indeed in our communities.


You may have seen them – electrical boxes rustically painted with the faces of Frida Khalo, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, and Malala Yousafzai – staring stoically into the distance on Wickenden and Elmwood streets. Talk to public artist Ysanel Torres, and she’ll tell you why she chose to portray these women with emphatic animation. Growing up in Providence, a daughter of a Dominican family, it was hard to see people like her depicted in mainstream media.
 
Lack of representation fueled Ysanel’s desire to find a medium to tell the stories of people like her in her community. However, her creative aspirations clashed with the pragmatism of her family. Ysanel was always taught to take the safe route in life, one that would guarantee economic stability and put food on the table. Instead, she chose to go against what she explains is “the common immigrant narrative,” and she pursued her passion, art.
 
“Being that one in many thousands of people in Providence, especially around that age, it was difficult to see myself. It was a way to show the rest of the young women who were around me... these women never settled.”
 
The women we see on these electrical boxes reflect a common story of women of color in Providence. Each of Ysanel’s subjects has a story of perseverance, of vibrancy, and of struggle, and through all of their tribulations stood tall as an emblem of strength. “We have women, especially young women that are the spinal cord to this city,” she says, leaning over a coffee table at an East Side cafe. “It has always been these incredible women that have, I think, been unsung for a long time... Shout-out to them, but also, shout-out to us!”
 
During her creative process, Ysanel also experienced empowerment, embracing the celebratory, bright colors she chose for her paintings. The artist noted that she wanted her work to have a “pop-artsy feel,” but still cover a cultural subject. You’ll also notice that many of her brush strokes and textures are imperfect – the polka dots on Corretta Scott King’s dress run, and the creator’s name isn’t stenciled, but scrawled across the box. These blemishes, she explains, are part of the rawness of imperfection she’d like the audience to embrace.
 

Mary Beth Meehan’s portrait of Bidur, a young Syrian refugee, hangs on the brick wall on the back side of The Dark Lady bar. Before coming to the United States, Mary Beth writes that Bidur “packed up her meager bag” and “walked away from her family business.” The then 27-year-old walked away from the life she had as bombs fell on her neighborhood and hundreds in her community perished. In response to the violence, she, her husband Hussien, and their three children decided to seek refuge in the US. However, after the 2016 election, tensions rose against Muslim communities in America, and life became scary again.
 
But, as Mary Beth describes, Bidur and her family are resilient, hopeful, and long for community cohesiveness. “She [Bidur] says something in Arabic and holds up her hands, lacing her fingers together... ‘We should all be able to live together – Christian, Muslim, Jew.’”
 
In the photo, Bidur is standing outside on a cold Rhode Island winter day. Snow peeks out from the side of the portrait and she’s in a leopard print coat and a pink-and-blue-patterned head scarf. Her smile is slight, apprehensive even. Her demeanor, a bit weary. The image shows Bidur in her new home, a vibrant face in an increasingly diverse community. Her photo serves as a reminder that people like her are real, they’re not part of the rhetoric of terror.
 
“Right now, the conscious representation of immigrants as unworthy of being here, as a drain on the system, I mean those conscious representations, again, [perpetuated] by the dominant voices are not accidental. And they filter through the culture,” Mary Beth explains with a concerned tone. Nursing a cup of coffee, the photographer relays that she wrestles with the issue of storytelling and who has the privilege to be the narrator. In her work in her Providence photo collection, she seeks to eschew preconceived notions the general public might have of marginalized communities. Her photo Bidur flips the script of Muslim life in America by highlighting the subject in her every day life.
 

Take a drive up Cypress Street off of North Main in Mount Hope, and you’ll pass it – a large mural of several African American musicians ensconced in a sepia-toned palette, superimposed on a black record and a map of the surrounding area. Upon further inspection, you may recognize some of the faces on the mural – Ray Charles, Etta James, James Brown, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday – and some you may not. Each have a significance to the Mount Hope community.

The Mount Hope area has slowly gentrified. As white collar professionals spill over from Boston, the original neighborhood’s populations have been pushed to the fringes of the city. Mount Hope, a historically black neighborhood, has gradually shifted from a majority-black residential area to increasingly white. The mural, officially titled Stories of Mt. Hope: East Side Mural Project, is a response to this change. It seeks to remind community members, old and new, of the neighborhood’s black culture, history, and a community that doesn’t want to be forgotten.

Hannah Resseger, artistic director of the project says, “Bringing that history and that culture to the new generation…[we are] keeping that history alive for the people that are living there now, so that, when they see they know that this was here, this happened, and the people and the community were a big part of it...That culture was here and it’s so important.”

Amidst the familiar faces on the Cypress Street mural, you’ll also find local Mount Hope artists who “made it big.” The artist on the project, Elijah Faris, depicts Sisirretta Jones at the center of the work. Sisirretta, a soprano opera singer from College Hill, was the first black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. Other native Mount Hopers include Billy Osborne, a talented drummer who played with noted jazz pioneer John Coltrane and later wrote songs for Ray Charles. There’s also David Hector, a saxaphone player who played with music big wigs like Etta James and James Brown. And finally, Sammy Hector (David’s son), otherwise known as DJ Leggs who “started breakin’” in the 90’s and DJing in the early 2000s makes an appearance on the wall as well.

The mural reminds people of Mount Hope’s historic past, but it also stands as a work of aspiration and positive representation. Hannah says the project lets members of the black community know that success is possible in Rhode Island, and they can follow in the footsteps of great musicians who came from their community. 

“Rhode Island is relevant. We’re so left out of the big music scene, we kind of got skipped over. Like New York is big, Boston is big. It’s like, people think you have to leave Rhode Island to make it big, and a lot of times that’s true, but here you have a family that did make it big.”