Art

On the Wall

A new Avenue Concept mural celebrates Rhode Island’s Indigenous heritage

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The Avenue Concept’s latest mural, “Still Here,” was completed by renowned Baltimore-based street artist Gaia just as summer came to a close. It occupies a towering facade nestled between Delta and Custom House streets, separated from Dyer Street by only a parking lot. It’s a highly trafficked area overlooking the Providence River, right at the conjunction of Downtown and the East Side and blocks away from where 95 and 195 meet. There is nothing hidden about it.

Upon its 80- by 100-foot Eastern facade now resides the likeness of Lynsea Montanari, a 22-year-old artist, musician, activist, youth educator, and member of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Tribe. She wears a simple, dark sleeveless dress and tribal earrings, surrounded by brightly colored sunflowers, plump strawberries, lush cattails, a jumping deer, and two red wing blackbirds — all locally native. In her hands she holds a black-and-white photograph of Princess Red Wing, the Narragansett and Wampanoag elder and expert on Native American history who lived from 1896 to 1987 and founded the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, where Montanari works in youth education.

The project came together under 2D Project Manager Nick Platzer, who has coordinated all of the Avenue Concept’s murals since 2014, starting with BEZT’s massive “She Never Came” off Matthewson Street in 2015 up through last year’s “Misty Blue” by artist Andrew Hem. Platzer previously ran a gallery in Austria, where he became connected to many of the world’s top street artists. He had wanted to bring Gaia to Providence for some time and knew that this particular location would be very “public and in-your-face,” which could lead to problems if the project was handled poorly. He needed someone receptive to community input.

Gaia is “one of very few to have the outlook that by painting these murals, you are sort of an invasive species,” says Platzer. Gaia himself shared that he is known for being “deeply investigative” and for “really finding the heart of the matter.” The building owners wanted something “figurative,” which limited the “purview and scope of where the mural could go.” Platzer had been doing research on the parking lot, but the Providence Preservation Society and the RI Historical Society couldn’t find much info on what stood there before. The theme of “erasure” was coming into play.

“We talk about preserve, preserve, preserve, but whose history are we preserving?” Platzer and Gaia found themselves asking. They thought of local Native history, which Platzer notes “has been around longer than any of ours” – it sparked the idea of a mural commemorating Indigenous culture, and an Avenue Concept staff member urged Platzer to reach out to Lorén Spears, Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum. She replied immediately: “You need to talk to Lynsea Montanari. She checks all the boxes of what you’re trying to accomplish with this project.” Gaia involved Montanari’s input through each step of the design process, asking, “What do you want to see in this mural? Which images are important to you?”

“She wanted to be completely contemporary,” Platzer says, since depicting Native Americans in traditional garb has become a common stereotype. Montanari wanted “to show people that we are the same – we’re millennial kids, basically.” Her earrings and the image of Princess Red Wing are nods to her cultural and historical roots.

Although not one to shy away from controversial topics or challenging imagery, with this mural, Gaia consciously tried to “tap into a feeling of hope” in a societal atmosphere rampant with curdling criticism and people “eat[ing] themselves and each other alive.” He suggested a working structure donating 10 percent of the project’s operating budget to the museum for its consultation work, and says the museum has “respected his process” in turn. Artistic goals can get “so lofty,” and it feels “wonderful” to Gaia to simply focus upon “insert[ing] powerful indigenous presence into downtown Providence.”

The project’s reception has been positive so far. “It was such a pleasure partnering with the Avenue Concept,” Spears says. “Gaia is so talented!”