Reimagining Cities – a new cross-disciplinary seminar co-taught this spring by Foundation Studies Critic Pamela Unwin-Barkley and History of Art + Visual Culture Lecturer Suzanne Scanlan – challenged students to reinterpret the experience of relocating to a foreign city through the eyes of immigrants living in an affordable housing project for the elderly in Providence. Urban renewal experts, preservationists and city planners spoke with students during the semester to provide context and prepare them for their final assignment, which was to create a meaningful permanent installation for the building’s community room.
As a member of the board of the Women’s Development Corporation, the nonprofit that owns and operates the facility (known as Adelante Apartments), Unwin-Barkley says: “We’ve long wanted to connect with RISD students in some way.” She and Scanlan asked students to work with residents “to record their individual stories and memories for a mural depicting a shared vision of a reimagined Providence.”
A mix of graduate students and undergrads from a variety of disciplines spent an afternoon asking probing questions of the mostly Dominican residents at the former turn-of-the-century schoolhouse. They asked them to describe their idea of “home” and to share significant memories of their childhood home. Using digital and analogue collage techniques, students then worked together to create a large-scale, seven-panel piece that incorporates maps, photographs, charts and illustrations.
“Leaving College Hill was truly eye-opening for many of the students,” says Scanlan. “They conducted extensive research into the birthplaces of the Adelante residents and incorporated the colors, flowers, foods and cityscapes of those places into the final installation.”
The course also requires students to read and respond to a series of articles about maps and mapmaking via a personal journal and to follow up on the mural project with a formal paper. “I provided art historical, theoretical and cultural contexts for the images and ideas we discussed in the seminar,” says Scanlan. “My perspective as a researcher and writer in the humanities dovetails beautifully with Pam’s experience as a practicing architect and planner. I tailor my lectures and syllabi to meet the needs of RISD students and, hopefully, to make them think about their own artistic practices in a deeper context.”
Unwin-Barkley and Scanlan started planning Reimagining Cities three years ago after connecting at a meet-and-greet hosted by Dean of Foundation Studies Joanne Stryker and HAVC Department Head Susan Ward. “The idea was to connect Foundation Studies with Art History 101,” says Unwin-Barkley. “Suzanne often lectures about Venice, which is one of my favorite cities. We initially collaborated on a project with freshmen making maps and paintings of Venice based on art history lectures.”
Given the success of their initial collaboration, the two faculty members developed this new course as a means of furthering the connections between studio and Liberal Arts pursuits. The underlying concepts that connected the class assignments were urban mapping and the many ways to, in Unwin-Barkley’s words, “unpack the information presented in a map.” Students began by studying Paris and Venice before focusing on Providence, examining how each city has evolved over time and how it can be interpreted through memory and nostalgia.
As part of the process, “Adelante residents invited us into their homes – old schoolrooms with huge windows and 16-foot ceilings – which they keep immaculately clean,” Unwin-Barkley adds. “We were so gratified to leave something permanent for the Adelante population to enjoy. It was a beautiful experience for all of us.”