A new piece of public art on the side of Empire Loan, at the corner of Broad and Somerset streets in Providence, is a bit of an optical illusion. Incorporating sculptural elements on a chain-link fence, spray-painted designs on the asphalt, and a mural on the building’s side, the piece comes together only when one stands back and takes in the whole view.
It stands as a fitting metaphor for the prevailing message at the dedication of the project, “What is Your Story,” on Tuesday. The piece was created over the course of a year by students at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, who used the opportunity as a way to incorporate many stories representing their neighborhood around Trinity Square, and to create a piece that brought the community together in creative practice.
“The kids, because they’re teenagers, focused on their school,” project mentor and artist Anna Snyder said in describing the process to me at the commemoration. “They collected stories from their friends, their peers, and their peers’ families. We got a lot of stories. We got some really tough stories—we got stories like, ‘I work three jobs, or I work full time at Walmart, and I can’t afford to pay my bills.’ Or ‘I’m sick and I can’t afford to see the doctor.’ Or we got stories like, ‘I brought my family with me from the Dominican Republic and they’ve never been happy.’ We got a lot of intense, personal stories.”
The students then read them and created quick abstract responses, which they then collected and rearranged. Students worked with technicians from The Steel Yard in fabricating the metal shapes for the sculpture on-site. “You don’t know, but I can look at every shape and know where it came from, because I followed their process,” Snyder said.
Mayor Jorge Elorza spoke at the dedication on the project’s aim to create equity in the Creative Capital: “This specific place that we find ourselves in right now, if you come here on any given day, you’re going to see all walks of life from the city of Providence. And some of the things that we should be really proud of as a city, and frankly, some of the things we should be ashamed of, as a city and a society.”
“Everyone has to be a part of what we do here in our city, and everyone appreciates beauty,” he added. “This is our small attempt—but our significant attempt—to bring that creative spirit and beauty to this neighborhood.”
Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who represents the ward where the project is located, was excited about the event. “I’m here because this is a great opportunity for us to celebrate,” she told me. “We’re celebrating Trinity Square. We’re celebrating all the work that has been put into it. And most of all, we’re celebrating a collaboration that has made Trinity what it is. And we’re looking forward to where we go from here.” She sees the students’ expression representing a new pathway for more community expression and self-determination more broadly.
Student artist Oscarina Pepen took the mic at the dedication and said that the reason that they chose abstract mural art is that everyone can see something different in its designs. She invited attendees to call out what they saw: one person saw a face, another a bird. I saw a butterfly, she saw a dragon. She added they wanted people to see their piece “with their own eyes.”
The full list of the creators behind “What is Your Story”: Yorelis Matos Maldonado, Fanta Traore, Olga Francisco, Oscarina Pepen, Albert Torres, Sita Traore, and Gustavo Lacen Javier. They received support from Marta Martinez at RI Latino Arts and the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island.