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Students Propose Public Art for Providence

Students Propose Public Art for Providence

Students in an interdisciplinary studio taught by Professor Ellen Driscoll, head of the Sculpture department and an accomplished public artist herself, are designing public art installations for the Kennedy Plaza area of downtown Providence.Spokes of the Wheel: Public Art in Kennedy Plaza is part of a multi-pronged city initiative to transform the transit hub into a vibrant destination for arts and culture – a venture bolstered by a$200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

In early April the mix of undergraduate and graduate students in Driscoll’s spring studio – majoring in six different disciplines – met with city officials and representatives of the arts community to present “third drafts” of their ideas for feedback. The enthusiastic critics included RISD alumnaLynne McCormack 87 FAV, director of Art, Culture + Tourism for the city of Providence, along withCliff Wood and Jennifer Smith of Greater Kennedy Plaza, a coalition of public- and private-sector organizations focused on revitalizing the area.

In addition to working with RISD and the coalition, the city is partnering with the arts organization FirstWorks in using the NEA Our Town grant ­– one of the largest of 51 awarded nationally – to create arts programming and draw up a master plan for the redesign of the Greater Kennedy Plaza space, which includes Burnside and Biltmore parks adjacent to the plaza. Public art is also being commissioned from The Steel Yard and a large fall festival is in the works as well.

“This studio is RISD’s part of the pie,” explains Driscoll.“Our role is catalytic. We want to open people’s eyes – delight them, surprise them, involve them – in order to reestablish their relationship with this area of downtown Providence.

To that end,Cody Henrichs MFA 13 SC generated a lot of enthusiasm for his proposalto create a partial replica of the Hannah, a colonial packet ship that ran the HMSGaspeeaground near the Rhode Island coast in a pre-Revolutionary incident known as the Gaspee Affair. Inspired to create a sculpture that could double as play equipment for preschoolers like his son, Henrichs envisions the ship’s bow and mast erupting from the grass of the small park that abuts the downtown plaza.

In contrast, Taniya Vaidya MFA 13 PT presented her idea for a performance piece celebrating the textiles industry, which has been integral to Rhode Island’s history, along with the Native Americans and more recent immigrants who have made the state so unique. She proposes that a dozen people wearing jumpsuits and linked by garlands of cloth flowers circle the fountain in the park and invite viewers to participate in dyeing cloth at the site. The jumpsuits and flowers would all be colored with a saffron-hued dye made from a combination of bloodroot, an endangered plant used by Native Americans, and turmeric, used for healing and cooking in Vaidya’s own country, India.

Qian Huang MLA 12 proposes making an existing black metal fence more welcoming by extending and bending some of the bars to create seating and mounting laser-cut silhouettes of trolleys, trains and other modes of transportation on the fence as seat backs.Roy Smalls MLA 13 would like to suspend a web-like map of old streetcar routes from the ceiling of the tunnel leading to Kennedy Plaza’s skating rink, using lighting and sculptural elements to direct viewers to look up, and to unify the tunnel interior (towards the sky). Andsophomore Stuart Penman 14 ID proposes placing motion-activated lights in the trees and along paths in both Burnside and Biltmore parks, which would provide illumination to pedestrians as they stroll through the area after dark.

As part of the process, students in the studio investigated both the ecosystems and the history of the area, mining their research for what Driscoll calls the “shiny silver ribbon” of inspiration. Now that all of the projects have been approved for further development, students will begin actualizing their ideas, with the goal of installing – or performing – some of the art works this summer or early fall.

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