“MAKING IT UP AS WE GO ALONG” Townsend at work.
A tree grows on the floor of Kennedy Plaza's skating rink, sketched in blue tape and cheap plywood.
Passersby who stop to snap photos and watch it grow can't see the full picture yet. The trunk is in place, but its branches are still in flux.
In the coming weeks, according to the artists commissioned to create a 14,000-square-foot mural for Providence's 375th birthday, a story will develop, rooted in the history of Providence founder Roger Williams.
When Williams's grave was dug up in 1860, the story goes, his corpse was nowhere to be found. But an apple tree root lay in its place — looking much like a human spine.
That tale, says Michael Townsend, one of the four local artists working on the project, guides the mural. At the northwest end of the skating rink, visitors will soon see roots and a skeleton, all drawn with tape. And just as in myth, from Williams' corpse grows a tree.
Between the branches will be smaller murals depicting Providence's past and present. Along the walls, the artists will shape a "scaled-down version of Providence in the 1600s," when the land's abundance of salmon made it a gathering place for Native American tribes, says Townsend, who is credited with inventing tape art as a Rhode Island School of Design student in 1989.
Providence's more recent plenty — rainfall — has altered the project somewhat. The work was supposed to be made only of tape, but "we saw entire parts of the mural roll up and just blow away" after a recent hailstorm, Townsend says. Hence, the plywood.
One deep puddle refuses to evaporate, so the artists have made it part of the picture. The puddle will be filled with 5000 (or more) small plastic fish, a contemporary recreation of the salmon that once filled the waters of Providence, "so thick that you could walk across their backs," Townsend says.
Townsend and his partners, who were caught living in a secret apartment in the Providence Place Mall in 2007, credit the city with being "crazy supportive" of their art — though Townsend is still banned from the mall for life.
The artists have free rein over the project, with the themes of the 375th anniversary — freedom, hope, roots, and ingenuity — as their main guidelines.
"We're just making it up as we go along," Townsend says cheerfully.
The team of four artists hopes to complete the mural by June 29, with one day to document it before the public helps take it apart at a closing party June 30.
Townsend enjoys that the art is so temporary and so public. The mural, like Providence in the time of the Native Americans, is "the place owned by all."