Art

Concrete Solutions

How two artists turned a basketball court into a memorial to a victim of gun violence

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Omar Polanco was only 19 when a bullet took his life. He had just graduated from the MET school and held a job at Walmart. He was shot on Sayles Street, near a small park in Lower South Providence. Omar’s death sent shockwaves through the community, and no suspects have ever been tried.

But the neighborhood wouldn’t forget him. Next to the former crime scene stands Omar Polanco Basketball Court, renamed in honor of the young victim. Most courts are coated in one or two colors. Here, the pavement is painted in vibrant floral images, a visual homage to life.

The murals were spearheaded by MyHome Court, a Providence-based nonprofit that restores old basketball courts, and Providence College Galleries, in coordination with the City of Providence Parks. They conscripted two artists: Joiri Minaya, based in New York City, and Jordan Seaberry, director of public policy and advocacy for the Providence-based Nonviolence Institute.

“I have never embarked on a painting knowing what it will look like at the end,” says Jordan. “I think it’s done, and then I realize there’s one other thread that I need to pull on. I created this painting through the same process – thinking about Omar, thinking about his family.”

Jordan grew up in Chicago and enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t click with RISD right away, and he took a break to involve himself in activism and public policy. When he returned to RISD, he felt a new sense of purpose. Among other projects, Jordan started painting portraits of people killed in street altercations. He called the series The Violences Project.

Jordan contacted the victim services team at the Nonviolence Institute; later, he would start working there. Jordan knew about Omar, and he became close with the Polanco family. “That was part of the reason I was so excited about taking this project on,” he says. “These are conversations about empowering families, talking about more than just death. Where did society let us down that made this violence more acceptable?”

Jordan and Joiri’s murals complement each other well; most passersby wouldn’t associate their impressionistic images with armed assault or an obvious plea for peace. Once the artists were satisfied with their paintings, a small army of volunteers from the Providence College Galleries started to apply actual pigment to pavement.

As it happens, the Nonviolence Institute is located near the park, and Jordan watched the mural come together during his daily commute. Today, the court is a memorial, but it’s also a standard setting for pickup games.

“It is such a joy to walk by, or ride my bike past the court,” says Jordan. “You might lock eyes on a kid who’s playing by himself, or a group of students who are playing, and they have no idea the personal investment I have in the ground they’re playing on.”

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