In early February, Providence Art Club President Nancy Gaucher-Thomas and sculptor Gage Prentiss stood on either side of a veiled bust. This moment was eight months in the making for Prentiss, who had spent countless hours in his studio crafting the masterpiece, gifted by an anonymous donor, which is revealed with a swift tug of the cloth: A bronze likeness of Edward Bannister, prolific Black painter and co-founder of the club.
“The sculpture is timely in so many ways,” explains Chair of Marketing & Communications Elise Francesca Fargnoli, who connects it to cultural shifts occuring today. “The club’s history has always been synonymous with our city of Providence and as an art capital, home to extraordinary artists that have inspired so many and will continue to do so years from now.” In Bannister’s case, he was the first person of color to win a national art prize, and despite his death in 1901, his work found a resurgence in the Civil Rights Movements of the ‘60s. His wife, Christiana Carteaux, was also a trailblazer of her time with a lasting impact, and supported her husband's art career, plus founded the Bannister Nursing Care Center in Providence. While the State House housed a bust of Christiana, it was now Bannister's turn to be cast.
“There wasn’t much out there,” Prentiss begins, referring to the few photographs of Bannister that existed when he started the project. To fill in the gaps, the Pawtucket artist used a combination of what he knew of anatomy and studies of a live model that he felt had the “feeling” of his muse – “the energy, the swagger, and the charisma he was so famous for with his friends” – to create the foundation of a three-dimensional portrait. Prentiss used spray foam to create what resembled a skull, which he proceeded to cover in layers of wax, building with brushes and spatulas until it hardened enough to carve out details. Finally, the wax figure was taken to a foundry to be cast in bronze.
“There was a huge feeling of relief, pride, and thankfulness,” says Prentiss of when he dropped off the bust for its final step, “but it also felt like there was something else to do, but I didn’t know what.” Prentiss remembered that he lived not far from Bannister’s gravesite at the North Burial Ground, and decided to make a stop; when he saw the stone and bronze monument designed and erected by Bannister’s friends, he was moved. “I started to feel such gratitude for being able to work on this project,” says Prentiss, “especially seeing how much he was loved in his life and how much he touched people with his work.”
“[Bannister] viewed his art as a deeply spiritual activity,” adds Fargnoli, and in many ways, this particular piece was for Prentiss, too.
Learn more about the creation of the bust and its unveiling on the Providence Art Club’s YouTube channel.