PFFFFFT PFFFFFT Yarrow with racks of Montana Gold. [Photo by Natalja Kent]
In a corner of the spray-painted mural on Westminster Street's Route 6/10 overpass in Providence — you know, the one with eyeballs sprouting from radio towers, green creatures riding space shuttles through fuchsia galaxies, and winged surveillance cameras popping out of cuckoo clocks — there are two mysterious words: "AVENUE CONCEPT."
What do they mean?
The answer became clearer this Saturday at a small cinder-block building about a mile from the overpass on Lockwood Street. The Avenue Concept, as its founder Yarrow Thorne explains, is the organization that negotiated for years with Providence's office of Art, Culture, and Tourism so that the eyeball mural (and the accompanying murals of B-Boys frozen in various mid-dancing poses across the street) could be installed. Though he didn't paint the walls, himself, Thorne coordinated the project as he often does with property owners who are sick of their walls being tagged with graffiti. Once a mural goes up, the tagging tends to stop.
We're standing inside Avenue Concept headquarters — a space known as "The Bin" — during their "soft opening" celebration. (They officially open later in May.) Thorne is placing price tags on pieces from the Bin's debut gallery exhibition: a series of neon portraits of anthropomorphic fish painted on scrap wood by Pawtucket native Ray Almstrom III. Outside, street artists wearing black rubber gloves are painting the side of the building in bright, jagged letters. We can hear the distinctive pffffft pfffffft of aerosol and rattle of balls in metals cans. A nearby trailer is piled high with the wooden skate ramp pieces that will be hauled to downtown's skating rink this summer for bi-weekly "Sandwich" skate sessions DJed by local kids who have learned to scratch at the Avenue Concept's after-school DJ academy. A few minutes after my conversation with Thorne, a marching band with tubas, trumpets, and cymbals arrives. As they blast away, a circle of young break dancers forms, kicking and shimmying on the building's gravel yard.
"We're really dealing with the subcultures of Providence," Thorne says. "Most people think of graffiti artists, DJs, skateboarders, break dancers as kind of the trash of the city. They see them as vandals, [people] that are destroying property." But whenever the Avenue Concept puts on a public event or paints a mural, he says, the reviews are exuberant. The key is providing the space, encouragement, and resources for these stigmatized activities to thrive, he says.
Thorne — a native of Northampton, MA — has no problem talking about the 15 years he took to complete an undergraduate Industrial Design degree at RISD. (He took 10 years off in the middle to start a car-outfitting business called Yarrowsport, for which he traveled through Europe customizing Audis and Porsches.) And now, thanks to a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation seed grant the Avenue Concept received last November, he'll continue his quest to challenge Providence to live up to its self-appointed title.
"If you're really going to promote yourself as the 'Creative Capital' then let's work together as a whole to . . . activate all these artists that are sitting in Providence that have no jobs and nothing to do," he says.
"Why isn't there more public art? Why aren't there more legal walls [to paint]?"