It is a rather unremarkable collection of bricks at the moment: an exterior wall at the back of Trinity Repertory Company’s Pell Chafee Performance Center in downtown Providence.
But in the coming months, if all goes according to plan, that wall will host a mural designed by the world’s most famous street artist, Shepard Fairey.
Fairey, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, first won attention as a student with his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign, a cryptic and alluring bit of viral art that later evolved into an “Obey Giant” crusade.
Two years ago, he vaulted to national prominence when his stenciled image of Barack Obama — often appearing above the word “Hope” — achieved iconic status.
The artist’s return to Providence was born of a conversation between David Ortiz, development director for the arts group AS220, and communications consultant Andy Cutler on Cutler’s porch on a warm day last fall.
Ortiz was searching for new ways to engage with supporters and raise money. And Cutler suggested reconnecting with the underground rock and art movement that animated Providence in the late ’80s and ’90s and was so central to AS220’s early work.
The talk turned, inevitably, to Fairey. And soon, AS220 artistic director Umberto Crenca was chatting with the artist about limited-edition prints that could be sold to raise money for the organization and an even bigger prize: the mural.
AS220 originally hoped to put the wall painting on the side of the Mercantile Block, a Washington Street building the group is renovating. The $14 million project is to include 33 live-work studios and a host of AS220 facilities on the upper floors, with a locksmith, pizza restaurant, and bar at street level.
Historic preservation concerns got in the way, though — legitimate concerns, Crenca says — and AS220 partnered with Trinity Repertory and the city to shift the mural to a rear wall of the Pell Chafee center, looking out over Aborn Street.
As the Phoenix went to press, the arts organization was still waiting on Fairey’s design. But the project promises to be of significance: Crenca says the artist told him it will be his largest mural to date.
Fairey will not paint it himself. He is, instead, designing the work for a relatively modest fee of $5000. Johann Bjurman, a Rhode Island muralist and fine artist, will execute.
Crenca says he hopes the mural will pull suburbanites off the well-worn path to the Providence Performing Arts Center and the Dunkin’ Donuts Center; will disabuse them of the notion that downtown is still the seedy center of so many decades ago.
“It’s a visual draw into the interior of the city,” he says.
But whatever its power, the mural will inevitably be tied up with Fairey’s provocative brand: the artist’s practice of appropriating — and reimagining — others’ work has created no small controversy.
The most famous case involves the artist’s iconic Obama poster. The stencil was based on an Associated Press photograph. And when the news agency demanded compensation, Fairey fired back with a lawsuit claiming that his work is protected by the legal doctrine of fair use, which allows for limited, non-licensed use of copyrighted work for purposes of commentary, criticism, news reporting, and the like.