ACT and Rogers Recreation Center awarded Providence artist Ysanel Torres the City’s first Public Art Residency in a City Agency.
Torres began her arts career as a painter/muralist in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. One of her most known local public art projects is a series of utility box murals created to inspire women for a female empowerment project. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts where she spent most of her time creating installations conceptually driven by the materials that she used. Torres’ most recent work has been in response to what she calls the “crucial status of American politics and systemic oppression.” She aspires to continue to carry her activism through her work individually and as an instructor as well.
Torres began her residency at Rogers Recreation Center in April 2019. She designed and installed a mural on the exterior wall in collaboration with children and youth. See below for her blog update from during the residency:
Winter 2020 installation update:
“This six-month residency turned out to be a lot bigger of a project than I had originally anticipated. Walking into Rogers means entering a pot of love and dedication from the youth and families that have come here and made this Recreation Center what it is for so many years. As a vital place for youth and families in the community, Rogers offers a huge gym and facility for workshops and after school programming, and during the summer a beautiful pool. Many Rogers Rec families in the neighborhood have come here for generations and their close-knit Smith Hill community was very involved with the process of this mural design.
The initial response from the community was that the building was not very noticeable from the street as it sort of hides behind Harry Kizirian Elementary. The students of Kizirian make up a huge percentage of the youth at the Rec and they were excited to see the building’s exterior wall transform. The young people who helped create this mural know what their community needs more than I ever will. Through a series of creative workshops and interviews, they gave me clear input as to the kind of vibe they wanted.
We discussed public artworks that have been installed all over the world as well as the general history of Madeline Selim Rogers, and the Rec. As they learned more about public art and what it means, the youth involved in this project created drawings that were more colorful; their collages began to represent bolder ideas. We worked together to pick a color palette and to hone in on a composition and size for the mural. It helped to walk outside plenty of times so we could imagine some designs enlarged on the huge wall. The young people involved in this project really stepped into it excited about the wall’s transformation and eager to find their roles. Aaliyah connected me to the students and staff of Kizirian, and introduced me to the famous Mr. Smith, a dedicated principal who brought students to see me in the painting process whenever he could. Aaliyah’s siblings Maya and Miguel were very active in the park, regularly checking in on the mural process and making sure the community knew what was going on. Haijah, who was also a student of mine through CityArts at Roger Williams Middle School, brought an incredible ingenuity and sense of comradery every day. While all of the Center youth inspired me with the ways they expressed themselves, Isam and Larry’s drawings were particularly loud and phenomenal. Augustus kept the space feeling like home as he was always there lifting the group up and getting creative. Giovanni and Isaiah really held it down at the rec, always helping with the space needs and making sure the students had time for art, homework and gym activities everyday. The warm and motivational “go get ‘em” attitude at Rogers Rec allowed for students like Tykori and Treze to get their creative juices flowing with me before they picked up a ball in the gym or after they spent some time in the yard with friends and family.
Everyone’s hard work helped us come up with more than a few beautiful designs that we then introduced to the incredible staffs of Art, Culture + Tourism and Rogers Rec. Together, we decided on a design that would be seen clean and clear from a long distance away and feel exciting and new for the community who would get to enjoy it every day.
I’d like to thank Ms. Althea Greaves for helping me track down the photographs of community organizers and caretakers, including Madeline Selim Rogers, that we considered for the mural design process. I’d also like to thank Gina Rodriguez Drix from Art, Culture and Tourism, who oversaw the project and helped the entire way through. Most of all, I have endless gratitude for the youth and families that took part in all of the conversations, mood boards, q&a’s and creative processes that made this project possible. Thank you to everyone who participated in all of the activities, beginning with our art classes over the spring and summer of 2019, and that continue making this place shine today!”
July 2019 update:
“I have spent the last few months at Madeline Selim- Rogers Recreation Center curating conversation about what public art means, what it means to be a maker of public art and the kinds of public art that we need or are lacking in our community of Smith Hill. The students and staff of Rogers Rec including myself have been very careful with this process, honoring all of the deserving people who have invested time and love into this place and respecting the exterior of the structure through thoughtful design and planning. We want to be contemporary in our vision, using clean and modern aesthetic to counteract our old city vibe. The mural should serve as a constant reminder of the extraordinary things that happen inside of this building on an everyday basis.
A lot of the community’s feedback about the Rec was about how hard of a time they had finding the building. The Rec is sort of hidden behind Harry Kizirian Elementary School so a lot of people don’t know that it’s there! Not only is Rogers Rec a great place for kids to play sports inside of their huge gymnasium, they also have an activity and crafts room, a massive pool equipped with lifeguards and vests, alongside a very well taken-care-of community garden and park. Acknowledging how far the building is from the street, we’ll be sure to use bright colors and patterns to help the building stand out more. The design will be simple enough to see from a distance, yet exciting enough to invite someone inside. With the help of Smith Hill leaders like Ms. Althea Graves and Rec Center members, we have narrowed down a strong list of people to portray positive figures on the mural. Although there will only be a few faces on the design, we will invite all of the community to participate in the unveiling and future fun events at the Rec!
The ultimate goal is to transform the space and make it feel more welcoming to all community members. There are always exciting programs happening here and through this new and creative exposure from our mural we’re hoping to see many new faces this summer and the next! Rogers Rec has been a staple to its Smith Hill community for more years than it has been acknowledged. This mural is a loud thank you to the space, to the people, and to Madeline and her colleagues.
In the last few months I have discovered that there are many talents and acts within our student roster and they truly deserve a spotlight. The kids of Rogers Rec are magnificent sport players, singers and songwriters, dancers and performers. This center wouldn’t be without the incredible students and families that walk in and participate so this is a special act of gratitude for them. I am a strong believer that you can achieve anything you put your mind to as long as you have confidence and unconditional support from the people around you. This summer we will provide the students with a platform to shine— talent shows and events, while documenting a short film about this experience to share with the world after the unveiling.
Feature image: Smith Hill councilwoman Kat Kerwin and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza with artist Ysanel Torres during the April 8, 2021 ribbon cutting for her mural.