Alvarez High School students come together to create a public art project for Trinity Square
Making public art—art that is out there in the world, for the public to appreciate, relate to and react to—is no easy task. Teaching Artist Anna Snyder and The Steel Yard are well aware of this complexity and proposed to the City of Providence that they would involve a group of high school students working together to design art for a highly visible corner parking lot in Trinity Square.
During Summer 2017 a small group of students from Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School showed up at the Southside Cultural Center to embark on a process of learning about and designing public art. The project, called Southside Stories, dedicated two months of summer Thursday afternoons to group discussion and community visits. Marta Martinez of R.I. Latino Arts partnered with Anna Snyder to create an open project space where our group could share opinions and mull over the intentions and realities that are woven into public art. I had the privilege of being part of this group. Here is a snapshot of our journey from July 2017 to April 2018 when installation of the artwork is now just weeks away.
Our Summer sessions included a series of field trips. Past Grace Church Cemetery Artist-in-Residence Anne Tait presented personal histories that make up the longstanding diverse cultural fabric of Trinity Square. A meeting with D.A.R.E., Direct Action for Rights and Equality, offered first-hand concerns about how homeless people do or do not factor into the cultural resurgence of a neighborhood. A walk to see the wealth of murals on Broad Street and visit local proprietors was led by R.I. Latino Arts intern Rosalie Ramirez. A bus ride to our City’s Downtown allowed the students to experience a wide range of murals and sculptural public art in addition to visiting AS220 where Artistic Director Shey Rivera inquired about each student’s personal passions for art and all things creative. Shey acknowledged how, when making art in the public realm, one must always be prepared that not everyone will appreciate your expression. Impressions from these visits registered strongly. Our intent and inspiration to make something great had to be equally paired with the ability to listen and be open to all viewpoints.
When the school year began our group began meeting in an art class room at Alvarez High School. Students decided to reach out and involve their peers there in the project. A model of the public art site was created and examples of public art lined the hallways. With hopes of obtaining personal stories of consequence that could shape our artwork, the students asked their classmates to anonymously share two things: their life’s greatest joy and its greatest challenge. Responses were written on index cards and slid into a box placed alongside the site model.
Next, creative expression began. The stories from collected index cards were read and digested. There was despair and resilience, joys of relationships and the hardship of life’s instability. Anna led our group in a series of rapid art making exercises that allowed us to respond to the raw emotions and translate them into something visual.
Next these freeform visual abstracts were made into stencils. Our eyes honed in on the most compelling imagery with the goal of finding original shapes and forms that could become the voice of our public art piece—hopefully a voice that could echo the truths offered up from the collected stories. The process was both playful and revealing. The stencils were combined into many potential layouts for the larger public art piece. Color palettes were carefully considered. This process allowed each student to contribute and helped us breakdown self-consciousness about artistic ability.
With a concept design for the fence and building mural in hand, our students visited the Steel Yard. Tim Ferland, Public Projects Director, and the Weld to Work job-training program participants, welcomed our group. We learned how steel is cut into the intricate shapes found in our design concept. Students sought feedback and listened as the Weld to Work participants explained what they saw in the artwork’s design. Several individuals were familiar with our site. One explained that she had been homeless in that neighborhood and said she would view this addition in a positive way. The exchange was helpful and putting on safety glasses to see steel cut was thrilling. We went into winter knowing that the artwork would be ready to be installed when spring arrived.
“WHAT IS YOUR STORY?” A public art piece for Trinity Square, will be installed July 31, 2018 at 2:00PM
Words by Margie Butler, Community Engagement consultant
Video production generously subsidized by Steer Digital