Words by Christina Strachoff
Two minutes into my eight minute drive down Broad Street, I’ve already encountered three pieces of public art. The first, on my left, is a square mural on the wall of my church, Renaissance. The words, “I love Providence”, and our city’s skyline stand out against a background sea of yellow, blue, and orange pastels. Not far ahead is the second, a towering smokestack by Classical High School adorned with spray painted slashes of rainbow, deep purple, and black. The bands of color are carefully shaped and pointing in every direction; their energy is like streaks of lightning. Beside Empire Loan, I see the third piece, vibrantly colored sheet metal cutouts dancing along a nearby fence.
On this particular day, I'm thinking about those abstract, intricate shapes and how they travel from the fence to the ground and up the side of the building. The scarlet red, ultramarine, teal, and neon yellow shapes of color hold my gaze. As an artist, I wonder how these particular details emerged, how the designers of this work arrived at these specific shapes and these colors. It must have taken a lot of iteration, I’m sure. Nearing my destination, I’ve passed more pieces than I can register in my mind.
An expansive piece appears by the last stoplight of my journey, and beckons me into its narrative. Covering the side of Compare Foods is a painting of the city in exaggerated perspective. The clusters of distinctly-Providence buildings are separated by an expanse of water and connected by winding highways and streets. Activity fills the scene; people are moving about, walking, talking, painting, playing chess in the middle of the road. One person is distinct from the rest. Her head, appearing to be at least ten feet tall, emerges from the land in the foreground. Her face tilts upward with eyes peacefully closed.
At my journey’s end, in the studio at CityArts, excitement fills the room as our eager young artists walk, jump and skip through the door. After we play “four corners” and the dust settles, the teaching artist Miss Hannah leads a discussion about the stages that clay goes through when we make ceramic artwork. The kids jump out of their seats as they talk excitedly about the terms “leather hard”, “bone dry”, “bisque-ware”, and “glaze-ware”, terms I didn’t learn until college. When the workshop ends, Miss Hannah asks if I can stay a bit longer to help her finish coating some of the young artists’ pieces in clear glaze. While painting and talking, I learn that we have more in common than I thought. Both of us went to the same college fifteen years apart, almost studied illustration but didn’t, and are still figuring out where our careers will go. It’s encouraging to connect with someone also navigating the world as a “creative professional”.
My sister, Samantha, calls me on her way home from work, and she has more energy than the eight-year-old ceramicists. I like listening, so I don't mind that I don't get in a word other than the occasional, acknowledging, “Uh-huh”.
She tells me all about her day as a social worker. It was long but she had a win during a session with one of her clients, a young boy. They played a modified version of the trending card game Exploding Kittens, which she repurposed as counseling tool. He had a blast playing the game, and, more importantly, engaged with the game’s new prompts to talk about his feelings. Also, her boss wouldn’t answer her question about an upcoming event. Why couldn’t he just do his job? So she had to Google the information herself. And she saw two dogs on the drive between her clients. Samantha sighs and says that she travels over one hundred miles on the highway every day. I consider telling her that I drive less than five miles on the average day, but I decide not to. I get home and turn on the kettle to prepare my evening decaf coffee.
By the time Samantha tells me she’s home at last, I’m on my second cup and have cooked and eaten dinner. She’s going to cook, go to two yoga classes, and watch another Star Wars movie. I just listen, tired, and tell her to come visit me in Providence over the weekend. She declines, uninterested in driving even more. But she says she wants to see me soon, and we end our conversation exchanging enthusiastic ‘I love you’s and ‘goodnight’s.
It makes sense that Samantha and I feel like opposites, yet like twins. She’s an extrovert and social butterfly, while I'm an introvert who treasures solitude. She's a human service worker with a focused career path, and I’m a “creative” who is interested in way too many jobs. We grew up in the same house with the same parents, though. We attended Catholic schools together for twelve years, with just two grade levels between us. I guess nature and nurture both play their part.
Sitting in front of my laptop, I’m clicking back and forth between Gmail and Facebook tabs. Messaging with my friend May gives me a breather from outlining the emails I’ll to send in the morning.
Since plans with Samantha didn’t work out, May and I are trying to decide what our weekend adventure will be. She likes to be around a lot of people, and neither of us have too much money to dish out. So we start listing options that meet our criteria: trying out a new local bar, attending an exhibition at our alma mater on College Hill, and going to a game night at her newly-befriended neighbor’s place. Then I realize that we’ve both been living in Providence for more than four years, but we’ve never gone together to WaterFire, arguably the most famous public work of art in the city. So we decide to go the next night.
We park on Benefit Street, a few blocks from the river. The low rumble of music draw us in, and we walk toward the smell of smoke. We see the crowds, hundreds of people walking in every direction. Passing the pop-up shops selling art and food, we’re close enough to see the central attraction, the fire pits marvelously floating along the water. The flames shine brightly against the almost-black water, their crackling blending with the atmospheric music. I’m distracted by the crowds, though. I remember coming from another state to experience this event when I was in high school; I can only assume many of these people have come at least that far to be here.
Walking along the river, I make eye contact with a stranger. She walks toward us, smiling warmly. “Hi, my name is Dana. Would you like to hear a poem?” She recites a heartfelt memoir of her youth. May and I learn that she grew up in Providence with her mom, who she calls her, “guiding light”. Dana was an only child and her mom taught her everything she knew. Mom sewed clothing, cooked daily, wrote poetry. So Dana did too.
I had never experienced poetry in this way, so spontaneous, generous, and personal.
I hear Dana’s voice rising and falling as she recites the rest of her piece, but I’m too stunned to fully understand her story’s meaning. I had never experienced poetry in this way, so spontaneous, generous, and personal. Dana hands us her card, smiling brighter, and walks away. May and I turn toward one another, eyes wide and in awe.
Not sure how to process the gift I was just given, I change the subject. I tell May about how Miss Hannah encouraged me after class. “You should volunteer with me at CityArts,” I add. “It’s just up Broad, past the mural of the city with the woman’s face. I can drive us there.”
This is the second of CityLove’s Dear Providence series, in which members of our community share their experience of the city.
Read the series:
Christina grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts and felt a pull to full time missions while in college at the Rhode Island School of Design.