Crossing Bridges to Find Public Art
It’s as though the highway between Providence and Rhode Island’s waterfront becomes a portal to a preserved time. Perhaps it is the preservation of our state’s landscape, native history and settlement that becomes the primary subjects for public art in these areas.
As I drive into Narrangansett, urban industry begins to fade away and the landscape becomes the force behind a thriving economy. I can smell the ocean. Seagrass grows along the roadside as bittersweet beautifully strangles trees. Horses graze in fields with skyline for miles. Crops are being grown, and there are signs for fresh pie. Marshes, sanctuaries, and ponds exist next to local businesses that mimic homes with exterior walls finished with weathered wooden shingles. There is an artistic homogeny within the architecture.
Passing the Block Island Ferry, I get out of my car to explore Rose Nulman Park, the Point Judith Lighthouse, dilapidated benches, dandelion turned to seed, rose hips, cyclists, sea breeze, and bluffs leading to the beach by the Atlantic Ocean.
I return to my car heading toward the South County Museum when I notice a massive wooden sculpture in Sprague Park re-establishing the over 30,000 year existence of the Narragansett People in this region. Outside 174-acre Canonchet Farm stands Enishkeetompauog Narragansett, a 23 feet tall Douglas fir sculpted into a portrait depicting the embodiment of the Narragansett natives according to Hungarian artist, Peter Wolf Toth. The title essentially translates to, “the people of the small, narrow point — a part of all humanity.” The artist honors local Native Americans’ input before beginning his work. The sculpture created is certainly a composite of the physical characteristics of the local tribes as well as their history. “My work chronicles the epic struggle of all people facing injustice,” said Toth. This work is a wonderful example of public art restoring the history and values of our ancestors.
On the contrary, when we think of Narragansett, The Towers near Narragansett Pier have become the center for social life and tourism since 1885. Surviving two massive fires in 1900 and 1965, the structure has held fast through the tests of time, acquiring an almost magical reputation for indestructibility — truly Narragansett’s good luck symbol.
Kate Vivian, Towers Coordinator, boasts, “In 2016, we have 128 private events booked (103 are weddings), and approximately 85 events are open to the public including weekly ballroom dance lessons and live music during the summer season. We generally present 10 chamber concerts each year, lectures on the history of the town, the architecture and so on. There are several projects for entertaining children each year. And we often celebrate the arts in the building.” Surely this cultural revival is beneficial for the economy.
I enjoyed the rest of my evening hiking along Bass Rock Road, one of my favorite places in all of Rhode Island. My fiery Australian cattle dog hopped along boulders and rocks by my side. Beautiful views framed the journey to the north, south and east. Naval helicopters flew overhead while waves crashed against the black algae coated rocks, and the shapes of stones disappeared beneath my leaping feet. It was an invigorating mile leading us to the sun setting over Scarborough State Beach.
Another slightly gray day with rain mist in the air, I drove along Route 77 along the Sakonnet River into Tiverton’s historic Four Corners near Fogland Beach. Metal works, antiques, galleries, fine cheese shops, boutiques, ice cream and cafes exist within a charming unhurried atmosphere of quaint 18th century buildings. This historic farming town continues to sustain its original beauty and lure.
Barbara Pelletier is head of the Tiverton Arts Council, which consists of volunteers from the community. She says, “We are trying to draw the community into the arts world.” The council hosts exhibitions featuring local artists’ work in their Town Hall. They are also planning to host a movie matinee. Barbara says, “I think the state sees arts, all phases, as an opportunity to grow the economy.” I agree.
The South Coast Artists, Inc. is an active non-profit corporation encouraging and fostering artistic growth and recognition among Tiverton and Little Compton Artists for about 13 years. This local group provides opportunities to view art made within the community; to interact with local artists; and to have access to artists’ creative working environments. southcoastartists.org
As I leave Tiverton, by way of Windmill Hill Road passing rows of rhododendrons, blooming lilacs, rose hips, branches covered in moss and lichen, private burial grounds, I again end my journey with a connection to stones. Row after row of stone walls leads me along West Main Road.
That’s when I realize I may have missed the most important feature of public art currently in this town. Did you know there once may have been 250,000 miles of stone walls in America’s Northeast, stretching farther than the distance to the moon? Robert Thorson, author of Stone by Stone, writes, “The stone wall is the key that links the natural history and human history of New England. Stone walls became a defining element of the Northeast’s landscape, and a symbol of the shift to an agricultural economy.” These same stone walls lead me through Portsmouth and Middletown into Newport where the arts community is alive and thriving.
Newport’s City Planner, Christine O’Grady shared this, “Newport has a wealth of publicly available art in a variety of forms, from traditional historic structures, statues, open spaces and streetscapes to the more modern public art forms on display throughout the city. Emphasis on the natural environment of the city is also something that cannot be overlooked when describing how pedestrians perceive Newport. The layout of public spaces developed by Landscape Architect, Fredrick Law Olmstead, more than a century ago are being reexamined as the city prepares for the future. These long established green space areas enhance every form of art within the city for the pedestrian. It is often said that ‘art is in the eye of the beholder’ and the way that I see it as the city planner is that there is some form of art here in Newport for everyone.”
I drive along Broadway and notice construction. O’Grady says, “In a broad sense public art is now being incorporated into innovative and sustainable streetscape designs (Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project) installed along some of the major pedestrian thoroughfares. These projects will not only help with storm water issues, but they will also enhance the look and feel of areas being traversed by residents and tourists alike through unique pavement designs and materials.” As written on the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) website, “The project is designed using Complete Streets principles; the state’s Complete Streets Law requires that all federal- and state-funded road construction projects equally consider motor vehicles, bicyclists, public transportation and pedestrians.”
It’s interesting to witness how the City of Newport, The Preservation Society of Newport County (Rhode Island’s largest cultural organization) and The Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation incorporate contemporary design into the county’s architectural heritage. I normally think of the mansions along Bellevue Avenue, The Cliff Walk, The Forty Steps, Washington Square Park, Eisenhower Park, Fort Adams, Breton Point, The Bird Sanctuary, Trinity Church, and Queen Anne’s Park as never-changing. Yet, it’s happening, and the improvements are maintaining the integrity of the original design while further educating the public and serving a utilitarian purpose.
The Reinvention of Queen Anne’s Square is one example of contemporary art meeting preservation in design. “Doris Duke thought out of the box a lot,” said Pieter Roos, foundation director. “That has allowed us to think out of the box.”
Maya Lin is an artist and architect focused on creating places for individuals within the landscape. She was hired to create “The Meeting Room” in Queen Anne Park. I can remember learning about the American earthworks movement while studying at Parsons, and hearing about Maya Lin for the first time. I was blown away by the way her architecture became one with the landscape as though it had always been there. Her forms were subtle, showing minimal juxtaposition to the natural environment.
The threshold to a foundation of an outdoor room created by Lin reads, “Rained all day. Made jelly & did various other Housekeeping matters which consumed the morning.” (Franny Clarke’s diary 1867) The surrounding walls become seats for the public and encourage rest, reflection and conversation. (Read more here: bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/travel/2013/05/25/doris-duke-foundation-reinvents-newport-queen-anne-square/TvFm9qwW6oFqh41ijNY8cP/story.html)
The Newport Art Museum is the only museum to focus on the art and artists of Rhode Island. The Pell Bridge is an icon designed by Alfred Hedefine. And the bronze wave with feet outside Perry Mill Market was designed by Kay Worden. Newport has so much to offer.