Community Gathers at RISD for Celebration of Still Here Mural

the completed Still Here mural in downtown Providence

“My people have been written out of Rhode Island history for so long,” says Indigenous artist Lynsea Montanari (Narragansett). “I hope that people finally begin to see us because of this mural.”

Montanari was speaking about downtown Providence’s arresting Still Here, one of the largest murals in New England. She posed for the collaborative piece, which was mounted by arts nonprofit The Avenue Concept in 2018, and recently joined a celebratory panel discussion in the RISD Auditorium about its creation, the community’s response and the future of the mural.

Organized by RISD alum and Assistant Professor of Illustration Holly Gaboriault 01 IL/MA 21 GAC and moderated by Vice President of SEI David T. Carreon Bradley, the panel also included Tomaquag Museum Executive Director Lorén M. Spears (Narragansett), Still Here muralist Gaia and Nicholas Platzer of The Avenue Concept. The early November event drew a large crowd, including many members of Rhode Island’s Indigenous community. 

panelists on stage in the RISD Auditorium in front of projected image of Still Here mural
Loren Spears and descendents of Princess Red Wing pose with her portrait in the RISD Auditorium
Above, panelists discuss the genesis of Providence’s largest mural, Still Here; below, Tomaquag Museum Executive Director Lorén M. Spears (far left) and descendants of activist Princess Red Wing pose with her portrait in the RISD Auditorium.

The 80-foot-tall mural features Montanari dressed in contemporary attire holding a photograph of late activist/educator Princess Red Wing (Narragansett/Wampanoag), who led the Narragansett Nation’s fight for federal recognition. It also features a red-winged blackbird (representing Princess Red Wing), a lady slipper orchid (representing Spears), Indigenous cattail plants and other native flora. In response to Bradley’s question about why he originally proposed an image like this for the wall, Gaia said, “My work is always place-based, and Indigenous rights are important for the healing of this nation.”

Gaia was introduced to Montanari at the Tomaquag Museum, where she works as Indigenous empowerment coordinator, just hours before he started painting. Before she agreed to sit for the piece, Montanari made it clear that she would not don tribal regalia. She worried that Indigenous attire would cloud the message of Indigenous endurance behind the piece and prevent passers-by from seeing it as anything more than a reference to the distant past, another piece of evidence supporting the false notion that Native Americans no longer exist.

“What made this collaboration work was the clarity of the plan,” Spears notes. “Gaia really listened to what we said, and each contributor was valued for the expertise they brought to the project.”

“My people have been written out of Rhode Island history for so long. I hope that people finally begin to see us because of this mural.”

Indigenous artist Lynsea Montanari 
a massive crane parked in front of the unfinished mural in 2018
Lynsea Montanari, Gaia and Nick Platzer pose in the RISD Auditorium lobby after participating in a panel discussion
Above, Still Here in process (2018); below, Lynsea Montanari, Gaia and The Avenue Concept’s Nicholas Platzer stand shoulder to shoulder in the RISD Auditorium's lobby.

Indigenous audience members stepped up to the microphone to express the joy and pride they feel every time they see the mural. And many wanted to know how much longer the piece would remain on view and what, if anything, will replace it.

“Murals are ephemeral by nature,” Platzer responded, “and leaving it up for 20 years would mean letting it rot and peel. When its time comes, we’ll involve the community in dialogue about how to replace it.”

Spears says she hopes Still Here will stay put for another five years, and Tomaquag Museum Assistant Director Silvermoon Mars LaRose (Narragansett) points out that as a new board member at The Avenue Concept, she will provide the Indigenous community with a voice.

Montanari’s closing take on how the project came together so seamlessly was insightful. “I think it was magic,” she said with a shrug. “Sometimes the universe brings us beautiful things.”

Simone Solondz / photos courtesy The Avenue Concept
November 8, 2023

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