Stop. Look. Listen

If you’ve noticed some unusual street signs around Providence in recent months, they’re the work of a street artist known as Ghostbutter, who has put up wry, encouraging signs throughout the city. Camouflaged to look like yellow street signs, his work catches you by surprise with messages meant to bolster spirits during the pandemic. 

Davis Alianiello (Motif): What inspired you to do this project?

Ghostbutter: I was inspired to do this project because of two things: the pandemic and the death of my father. My father died this past January and ever since I have just been trying to put two and two together. The signs are a very public kind of Note to Self to try and get myself back on track. “So Lovin U,” “Don’t Lose Heart,” “Almost There,” are all things I’ve been telling myself. They’re like those self-affirming Post-It notes people sometimes put up around their homes, but in this case they’re street signs and very out in public. The pandemic obviously plays a huge part in this, too. I think it’s been a long slog and I’m trying to slyly give people a little encouragement. I think it was important for me personally to do it publicly because so much ease and general humanity has been stripped from our public spaces in the last year.

DA: What do you think the role of public art should be?

Ghostbutter: I think public art should surprise people to begin with. And then like all other art, I think, from there it should either disturb the comfortable or comfort the disturbed (David Foster Wallace is where I heard that first, but it’s likely attributable to other sources). In this case, I’m trying to create work that comforts the disturbed. Also it should wrestle with the contradiction of its own existence, and other contradictions. Most of the time public art doesn’t do this because it gets watered down by committee. That’s why guerilla public art gets me — it’s not agreed upon or approved. It’s just one person desperately putting something up on the street trying not to get caught. 

DA: In a way, your art seems intentionally inconspicuous, unlike a lot of street art. What do you hope a viewer’s experience of your art would be? 

Ghostbutter: Yes, with the signs, being inconspicuous is entirely the point of what I’m doing. I’m trying to camouflage myself, pretend as though I’m just something state issued. I like taking on that voice of the state because normally it’s simply the facts relayed in the most dispassionate way. Caution Speed Bump. I figured that if I could take on that voice and then say something utterly empathetic and human then I could surprise people in a decent enough way, kind of catch them a little off guard. Also personally I really respond to the contradiction of form and the content. That’s the kind of stuff that I stay up late thinking about.

DA: What’s your favorite of the signs?

Ghostbutter: Don’t Lose Heart. I’ve made that one a few times already and I think it stays truest to my original vision of the piece. Street signs are often telling you not to do something, so it seems really to fit in with the existing Street Sign Tone. Also it has three words and the first two are negative and the last one is positive, so it has a kind of contradiction at play just in the language. Like one of those haiku poems where in a three line poem, the third line is a complete repudiation of the first two lines. Also so far it’s the one I relate to most.




From Concrete to Jungle: Adam Anderson continues to bring life to Rhode Island cities

You may already be familiar with Adam Anderson’s work. He’s behind one of the more glorious sights during the summer in Providence, 10,000 Suns, the field of sunflowers that blooms across the parcel of land left vacant by the I-195 highway relocation. When the city put out a request for proposals last year for the new Roger Williams Park Gateway Entrance on Broad Street, Anderson’s studio Design Under Sky (DUS) was a natural to be part of the INFORM design team; their entry became the winning bid. 

I asked Anderson about the impact of landscape architecture on urban life. “I think it is that connective tissue which makes city life possible, this thread that is essential for our existence,” he said. “As an art form, it expresses our relationship to nature and the living world, and makes us ask questions about how we are living.” 

Prior to forming DUS, Anderson worked for the award-winning offices of Landworks Studio and Ground, Inc. in Boston. There, among other projects, he designed gardens for numerous hospitals, both here and in China. “It’s another function of landscape architecture – incorporating the healing balm of nature with the urban realm. We bring nature and culture together in an artistic way, a sculptural way, that allows the two systems to work with each other.”

The colorful new RW Park Gateway Entrance is designed to welcome the Broad Street community and beckon them into the park, but the gardens also serve an environmental purpose. “We took a 100% asphalt site and turned it into a 70% permeable site. I think it’s going to play a big role in increasing the vibrancy of that area.”

Anderson notes that the influence of landscape architecture isn’t always obvious. “The designs aren’t in your face, you don’t necessarily recognize that there’s been an architect involved, but when you see it, you know it – you move through it and then you say, ‘Oh, that was nice.’” 

Anderson’s focus for now is on cities. “I’m particularly interested in urban spaces and bringing the joy and delight of the living world into them so that people can continually reconnect and have that sensibility,” he said. And the simplest design can often be the most effective. Anderson recalls his project Living Edge, just north of the new pedestrian bridge. “There was a beautiful willow tree and all I did was put a bench under it and it became this beautiful little serene spot to look at the river.” He smiled. 

“Sometimes all you need is a good tree, a nice seat and a good beer.”

For more, go to designundersky.com or follow @adameanderson




Revolution Solution: Fashion Revolution PVD fights fast fashion culture

Before you ditch your skinny jeans for a pair of wide leg jeans that you’ll be tossing for next year’s trend, consider the impact. The fast fashion industry thrives on consumers salivating over the latest looks that make it from runways to closets with lightning fast speed, only to languish in landfills when the trends inevitably change in a season. These clothes are more or less designed to be disposable — they’re made out of cheap materials and poorly constructed, and their environmental impact is huge. The clothing manufacturing industry uses trillions of liters of water each year. Cheap dyes in wastewater pollute our water, then consumers pollute it further by tossing their synthetic clothing into a washing machine, allowing tiny plastic fibers to find their way into waterways.

There’s also a human cost to fast fashion. In order to produce clothing quickly and inexpensively, factory workers often are overworked and underpaid, forced to work in unsafe conditions. In April 2013, Raza Plaza, a shoddily constructed eight-story building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500. This tragedy was the impetus for Fashion Revolution Week, which takes place in April to honor the Raza Plaza victims.

Fashion Revolution Week is an international event that fights back against fast fashion by supporting a more ethically sourced and sustainable fashion industry. Cities around the world participate, and this year, Betha Wood is the city lead for Providence. I recently spoke with her about her passion for the project.

Emily Olson (Motif): How did contributing to a more sustainable fashion industry become a passion for you?

Betha Wood: I’m one of the founding members of Style Week, which is one of the local fashion weeks in Providence. I was the director of hair for 10-plus years, and through that experience, I got lots of work backstage at NY Fashion Week and London Fashion Week. I’ve been all over the world in fashion, and I’ve been abused by the top people in the industry. I learned a lot from those negative experiences because it showed me that I want to change the culture backstage. It’s interesting that this organization [Fashion Revolution] was founded because of the mistreatment of people in factories. but it really relates to every avenue in the industry — people in retail, the models, the agents. It’s culturally nasty a lot of the time and it doesn’t have to be. Maybe if we can make fashion kind we can make kindness fashionable.

EO: Clothing that is sustainably and ethically produced and made out of natural fibers can be prohibitively expensive. What would you suggest to someone who wants an ethical wardrobe, but can’t afford one?

BW: Focus on recycled clothing or build a relationship with a local designer to rework the things you’ve always had that you love. It might be expensive, but then you’re making your loved clothes last. And we need to educate ourselves. Most people don’t know the fashion industry is the most pollutive in the world.

EO: What is Fashion Revolution Providence doing to combat fast fashion?

BW: I created a map that highlights as many Providence-based vintage and resale shops, as well as tailors and cobblers, that I could find. I’m also making mini films that tell the stories of the people who are in the industry or impacted by it. 

Rhode Island is the birthplace of the industrial revolution. We had the first cotton mill in the US. We have some of the oldest polluted waters in the country, and today, Pawtucket has some of the cleanest waters. Let’s celebrate our rich textile history, pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve accomplished, look at our next steps and share what we’ve learned with the communities behind us.

Fashion Revolution Week takes place April 19 – 25, with a film screening to take place on April 25. Find details on the film screening as they become available at fb.com/FashionRevolutionPVD or @FashionRevolution_PVD. Designers, tailors, makers and cobblers who want to participate next year should contact fashionrevolution.pvd@gmail.com. Motif partnered with Fashion Revolution to create its map and films.




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Saying it Out Loud: Teen poetry competition gives students the tools to reflect

Teens, poetry and excitement seem like an unlikely combination – but therein lies the magic of Poetry Out Loud. Since 2005, the program has been engaging new generations of students to not only read, but to embrace the rich legacy of this art form by competing to recite a poem, thereby making it their own.

Poetry Out Loud is an arts education program and competition created by The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. By working in partnership with state arts agencies, the program has grown to reach more than 4 million students and 65,000 teachers from 16,000 schools. It fulfills a crucial need that has only grown since the advent of the pandemic – an accessible educational program that really motivates students to learn.

“Poetry, when I was a girl, was done in junior high school,” said Martha Lavieri, program coordinator for Poetry Out Loud RI. “Some ancient English teacher would ask us to memorize ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and it had no meaning to me at all.” She noted that for students today, the concept of poetry has been affected by rap and spoken word. “Cadence has changed, storytelling has changed, and social justice dominates the issues expressed,” Lavieri told us. “It is far more culturally sensitive, which is a good thing.”  

Competitors are asked to recite one poem from a curated anthology, and this year’s collection is one that high school students can really connect to; the Foundation has been responsive to students’ and teachers’ desire for poems that reflect ethnic diversity and cultural issues. “We feel like we are working with an organization that is listening,” said Lavieri. “They’ve been doing an outstanding job.”

Rhode Island is fortunate to have Kate Lohman and Motif poetry curator Damont Combs to assist in facilitating the program in local classrooms. Both Lohman and Combs are teaching artists who offer a wealth of experience in writing and performing.

Lohman said, “I teach oral communication at Providence College and even there it’s hard for students to begin. A poem can get you talking about a topic … something as personal as being lonely. Teens, especially, have intensely complex emotions, but they don’t always have language for what they’re feeling. Poems give them a place to start and the means to reflect and process.” 

“There’s such courage in these kids,” said Lavieri. “It’s not just the poems or the competition – there’s a personal story for each one of them. I can’t think of anything that I’ve done in terms of work or career that’s given me as much satisfaction as this has – watching the strength of these kids and the dedication of the teachers.” 

Poetry Out Loud is supported in RI by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Learn more at the national website poetryoutloud.org. On March 21 at noon, the 2021 state finals will be streamed live on Zoom; tune in on May 2 for the national semi-finals, and on May 27 for the final match. All events are open to the public – find the Zoom link and updates at facebook.com/Poetryoutloudri. 




A Bouquet of Cheer

What Cheer Flower Farm is a nonprofit with the mission to grow, rescue and donate flowers and flower bouquets to underserved people dealing with stressful situations. Its 2.7 acres are located on a former factory site in Providence. The organization has remediated 18,000 square feet of polluted soil and turned it into organic flower fields, with plans for further expansion.

Early spring is busy season for the farm, but What Cheer’s farmer, Krystal Kraczkowski, took some time out of her planning to talk to me about what’s blooming this season.

Emily Olson (Motif): What’s going on at the farm?

Krystal Kraczkowski: Right now, I’m doing a lot of planning and researching new crops I want to grow. We are also planning a whole new growing space. Right now it’s a flat area of asphalt, but we’re working with Ground Works, an organization that gives job opportunities to individuals who might be able to otherwise get a job, to rip out the asphalt, add gravel and make raised beds that are handicap accessible.

The new area is going to be about 5,000 square feet and it will double our growing area. It’s on the corner of Agnes and Magnolia, so you’ll be able to drive by and see that we’re growing flowers instead of just factories.

EO: What types of flowers do you grow?

KK: I grow flowers have the longest vase life and are easiest to grow. So we grow a whole bunch of a few things. I also grow fillers and greens to bulk up what gets donated to us.

EO: Who receives your donated bouquets?

KK: We only give away to other nonprofits, and we have changed up a little bit who we’ve been donating to in the pandemic. We can’t give flowers to patients in hospitals, but we give to the food bank and the hospitals themselves. And we give to the workers in hospitals. 

EO: When people are in life-threatening situations, dealing with health issues or food insecurity, why are flowers important?

KK: I used to work at the farmers market for Robin Hollow Farm and saw the flowers go from seed to centerpiece. My favorite time of the week was going to the market and bringing flowers to people because they would thank me for bringing joy to their lives and for all my hard work for making their day a little brighter. Flowers help you feed your soul, and that makes a huge difference in someone’s life.  

EO: As a flower farmer, what advice would you give someone who has a little patch of earth and wants to grow their own?

KK: Plant as many as you can. Even if it looks like the worst place for a flower. Remember what they said in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way. It’s so incredible to see that life can find its way in every situation. It’s a reminder to do the same thing in your life. 

To volunteer, donate flowers or inquire about bouquets, visit whatcheerfarm.org  




Cover-Up Job: The Creative Capital rejects a cheerful neighborhood mural

The storefront between Blake’s Tavern and Washington Street Market had been boarded up for months. To passing traffic the dingy, graffiti-marked wall was an eyesore; for Ryan Dean and Lara Henderson, it was a potential canvas.  

The collaborative team had recently helped a new restaurant down the street, turning a broken and boarded up window into a bright mural. The two welcomed another opportunity to bring art to the neighborhood. So after getting encouragement from nearby businesses, they got to work. 

As Dean and Henderson began painting, they drew an audience. “People would walk by, we’d have conversations … it was a way of building community,” Dean said. “We got a lot of positive feedback, thanks and praise for the work we were doing. It was a good way of getting to know passersby and new neighbors.” Despite the freezing weather, within two or three weeks the drab wall had become transformed – the painted characters were playful, the colors engaging.

Then just as the mural neared completion, it was painted over.

To Dean, the cover-up is somewhat of a mystery. “It was funny, because we saw the Downtown Improvement District team walking down the street while we were painting, and they seemed into it, and happy for us. But that was also the same organization that painted it over, so there is some kind of miscommunication. We don’t know where that decision came from.” Dean wasn’t aware of any complaints.

It might have been that the site was next on the list to get a new coat of latex, but the timing is curious. The expanse had been falling into disrepair for at least six months. Yet it was only after local artists created a mural that it got the cover-up.

“It’s kind of two different ideas,” said Dean, “about what an inviting Avenue of the Arts in the Creative Capitol should look like.” To be fair, the neutral tan color doesn’t clash with surrounding buildings – but neither does it welcome visitors to the block or engage them.

Attempts to contact the city have so far met a dead end and Dean is frustrated: “This could have been a real opportunity for artists to engage with their community – Lara and I live in the area, so it was something we would walk by everyday. Neighbors would stop and say that it made them happy to see something fun, so it was a little sad to see that go.”

This may have been a missed opportunity, but Providence Mayor Elorza has shown a clear appreciation of the arts, and Dean and Henderson have a sincere desire to grow community through art. If communication can be forged between parties, perhaps the future holds other possibilities. 




Taking it Outside in Style

PVD Cares Outside is the new public program from The Steel Yard and City of Providence Arts, Culture, and Tourism. At a meeting last year, Tim Ferland, director of public projects for The Steel Yard, said, “Maybe we should put together some kits to help restaurants and retail stores move their operations outside.” To date, the grant-funded project has produced 30 kits that will help businesses all over the city “take it outside” and stay safe during the pandemic. “The plan was to take this money and try to keep it as local as possible,” says Ferland, “to create something unique for the city.”

Each kit consists of tents, traffic barriers, string lights, electrical cords, cord covers, and posters. The Steel Yard was also able to use the grant to hire local artists to customize the kits. Troop recently installed their kit for outdoor dining, and you can expect to see more kits pop up around the city as the weather gets warmer. Businesses can apply for a kit through The Steel Yard’s website (thesteelyard.org).




On the Cover: Anjel Newmann

Motif Cover, February 2021

Anjel Newmann is an educator, anti-racist organizer, director of programs at AS220 and the face of Shepard Fairey’s most recent Providence mural. She’s also the artist behind this issue’s depiction of a modern Anna Julia Cooper, and we couldn’t be more proud to showcase her work. Newmann said of her art, “‘Only the Black Woman,’ centers Anna Julia Cooper with Queen Beyonce’s glasses and hair to show that we are our ancestors, they are us, and when we move in divine alignment, we advance justice for everyone.”

Cooper’s driving force was advancing justice. She was a Black liberation activist; an author, educator and public speaker; and one of the most prominent scholars in US history. Her first book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, is widely acknowledged as one of the first articulations of Black feminism.

She received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College and taught at Wilberforce College before she moved to Washington, DC. There, Cooper, Helen Appo Cook, Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Mary Jane Peterson, Mary Church Terrell and Evelyn Shaw formed the Colored Women’s League in 1892. The goals of the service-oriented club were to promote unity, social progress and the best interests of the African-American community.

Throughout the rest of her career, she sought to advance her community through education. A few years after receiving her doctorate in 1924 — only the fourth Black woman to do so — she retired from the Washington Colored High School and accepted the position of president at Frelinghuysen University, a school founded to provide classes for DC residents lacking access to higher education.

Newmann calls her portrait of the mother of Black feminism a “hip-hop futurist digital collage that honors the lineage of bad ass Black women who have used their bodies, minds and spirits to transfer the electric nature of our power.”  




Moving Images: Newport Art Museum selection highlights the plight of domestic abuse survivors

The Newport Art Museum has added a collection of works by world-renowned documentary photographer and activist Donna Ferrato, and will be displaying a curated selection in the Howard Gardiner Cushing Gallery that documents the plight of domestic abuse survivors. 

Donna Ferrato: Selections from Living with the Enemy will run from Feb. 6 to June 6. The exhibition includes defiant, vulnerable portraits of various subjects who wear on their faces the psychological trauma (and physical scars) of the violence they have experienced. Other photographs illuminate the perilous world navigated by battered women, such as the image of a man being led out of a kitchen in handcuffs while a crying woman and child look on, to a close-up of Becca Jean Hughes — standing behind the bars of a jail cell — who spent decades in a Missouri maximum security prison for shooting her husband while he strangled her. 

The judge in Hughes’s case disallowed the introduction of her abuser’s violent history as evidence. 

The exhibition is being arranged by Newport Art Museum senior curator Dr. Francine Weiss and curatorial assistant Megan Horn. The museum was given a broader collection of Ferrato’s work in 2020. Weiss said the exhibition’s timing is no accident. With the rise in every form of abuse since the onset of the pandemic, it’s important to use art to tell these stories, she said. Opening 2021 with selections from a newly expanded permanent collection was one way to accomplish this.

“I’ve [always] liked the idea of doing an exhibition of collection works to show visitors what we have in the museum’s permanent collection that’s not always on display,” said Weiss. “But the idea to show these photographs at this time had to do with current events and the rise in domestic partner violence during COVID.”

Working as a photojournalist on assignment in New York, a chance encounter in 1982 led to Ferrato’s foray into using photography to document domestic abuse. She witnessed a physical assault in New Jersey of a young woman by her husband. The incident resulted in the first photo in what would become a decade-long project culminating in her 1991 published collection Living with the Enemy. Ferrato spent the bulk of the 1980s traveling the country, even staying in women’s shelters and accompanying calls with law enforcement, documenting in hyper-realistic detail what she saw. 

Ferrato is a tireless advocate for domestic abuse survivors. She founded the nonprofit Domestic Abuse Survivors Inc. and served as the organization’s president. With awards and accolades too numerous to mention, Ferrato’s work has been featured in more than 500 solo exhibitions. She launched the I am Unbeatable campaign in 2014, a multimedia archive meant to raise public awareness.

“For her, photography and activism go hand-in-hand. The photographs are linked to the reason she made them. She has the intention of promoting awareness of domestic partner violence and violence against women and children,” said Weiss. “Ferrato caught pivotal moments. She has a real gift for creating striking compositions.”

Ferrato’s earlier works display the freewheeling liberation brought on by the sexual revolution, exploring erotic subject matter deemed taboo in mainstream society. However, a darker side emerged. In her second book, Love and Lust, Ferrato wrote about her aesthetic transition: “I was now driven to reveal the unspeakable things that were happening behind closed doors.”

“It was intended to make people aware and even to bring about changes in the legal system. Living with the Enemy was groundbreaking in this regard,” said Weiss. “It didn’t pull any punches…. It was at a time when abused women who killed their abusers to protect themselves could not use ‘self-defense’ as a defense.”

Weiss hopes the viewership of their latest exhibition transcends the museum’s usual crowd. They are now in the process of planning a panel discussion, shooting for a date sometime in March, in partnership with local nonprofit organizations.

“She has already reached beyond standard museumgoers with her own work,” she said. “The intention was to show that abuse exists and its impact. Documenting the physical injuries, the presence of children in violent homes, even the deaths confronted people with a harsh and undeniable reality.”