ARTISTIC INDUSTRY Fairey’s AS220 mural.
Some weeks back, painter Agustin Patino drove me down Broad Street in South Providence in his wife's Jeep. We passed the environmentalist mural he was finishing on the side of Dialysis Center of Providence — cleansing the blood as metaphor for cleansing the planet — and an Afrocentric mural Munir Mohammed was finishing on Oasis International, across the street.
Murals have been sprouting up all over Providence in the past few years. One project has etched a dozen of them on dilapidated buildings before they're converted to housing for the poor.
Shepard Fairey, the street artist who created Barack Obama's famous "Hope" poster, designed a striking homage to the city's industrial and artistic traditions that peers down from the side of the Pell Chafee Performance Center.
But South Providence is the heart of action, with at least half a dozen murals going up on Broad Street alone over the past two summers alongside hand-painted advertisements and a graffiti memorial.
Patino drove past a house stenciled with painted leaves and a "Keep Your Dream Alive" mural in progress on the side of Sanchez Market. Then he turned onto Ontario Street, next to Compare Foods Supermarket, where he finished a mesmerizing 140-foot-long mural he calls The Plaza of Art and Culture a few years back.
"When I saw for the first time the wall on the supermarket, I said, 'Man, this wall is mine,' " he tells me.
It's not the neighborhood mural you might expect, the sort that suffers from noble intentions — its community engagement, youth involvement, and social earnestness hampering the content and craftsmanship. No, Patino's murals are powered by a magical realism; this one depicts a web of suspension bridges miraculously spanning great seas.
"I think there is some momentum being built, and the more people see, the more people want," says Bert Crenca, artistic director at Providence arts space AS220, which commissioned the Fairey mural. But he adds, "I think we're a little behind in terms of public art," particularly in a community that makes art its brand.
Murals have long been part of the social fabric of cities like San Francisco or Philadelphia, where the Mural Arts Program, founded as an anti-graffiti measure in 1984, has sponsored some 3000 murals of remarkably good quality. A city of Boston teen program sponsored dozens of murals in the 1990s, and then trailed off, and now many are peeling away.
Providence's engagement with the art form has been more intermittent. But all of a sudden, it feels like the city is having a mural moment.
Attribute the blossoming to a confluence of talent, a bit of funding, and Providence's taste for art. But it remains fragile. Moham-med argues that the meager fees muralists are paid for their work here — often just a few hundred dollars — depresses the quality. "You end up paying yourself to finish the job," he says. "Until Rhode Island changes its attitude toward artists, it's going to be a tough call. You'll see murals springing up and dying again."