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Public art is everywhere, but, nowhere in Rhode Island is there a greater concentration of the sculptures, statues, monuments and memorials that constitute public art, than in its capital city of Providence. We see them dotting the landscape as we drive to work, walk to the store, or enjoy a day at the park. They are all around us. Yet, some of these artistic masterpieces seem to hide in plain view with thousands of otherwise unsuspecting and pre-occupied passerby walking or riding past each day without even as much as a notice. Rhode Island School of Design Assistant Professor of Sculpture, Richard Jarden, noted the irony when he, in 1980, so profoundly wrote “…Public sculpture is very difficult to see. On the immediate level, what is going on around it, behind it and sometimes on it can be as engaging as, or often more engaging than, the sculpture itself. We pass by sculptures every day without noticing them because they are mute, frozen helplessly in time, while we have the ability to move, even to move away.”
Sometimes, however, we do notice the art. We look at it, study it, get up close to it, and walk away from it scratching our heads wondering what in the world we have just seen. It happens frequently, and, in fact, it was just that scenario that prompted us to write Monumental Providence: Legends of History in Sculpture, Statuary, Monuments and Memorials. The book chronicles all 94 permanent pieces of public art on display in the city and while some may be self-explanatory, others might need some interpretation before the true beauty of the work can be appreciated.
Take for example those three impressionistic figures standing upon a pond frond that is a prominent feature in Frazier Park, a small two-tiered park located just off Benefit St. on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design. You’ve probably seen it, you may have admired it, but you very likely have no idea what it represents.
This 1963 treasure of Sculptor Gilbert Franklin was a gift of Mrs. Murray S. Danforth, Chairwoman of RI School of Design’s Division of Fine Arts and descendant of one of the institution’s founders. The bronze work of art brings to life a piece of Greek Mythology. According to legend, the musician Orpheus had the ability to charm anyone with his music. Overcome with grief upon discovering that his wife Eurydice had died of a viper bite he descends to the depths of hell to plead for his wife’s return. So strong is the power of his music that it overcomes death itself and the devil agrees to allow Eurydice to return to earth on the condition that Orpheus walk in front of her and not look back until both he and his wife have reached the upper world. As he enters the world of the living, an anxious Orpheus looks back at Eurydice forgetting that she too must have entered the upper world before he could look back. She immediately vanishes from his site, forever cast back into Hades. The sculpture depicts Orpheus watching the guide Hermes lead Eurydice back into death.
The sculpture entitled “Orpheus Ascending” depicts an anxious and horrified Orpheus looking back as his wife Eurydice is led back into hell by the devil
The myth is a beautiful love story and the sculpture so adeptly freezes in time that horrific moment when enraptured happiness is forever stolen from Orpheus. It is a magnificent example of public art which has far greater meaning once the subject of the art is better understood.
Perhaps Paul Campbell, former Archivist for the City of Providence, and Richard Jarden summed it up best when they observed, “Public art is everywhere and has served as an artistic form of cultural memory since the dawn of civilization.” “It is all around us. Yet, some of these artistic masterpieces seem to hide in plain view with thousands of otherwise unsuspecting and pre-occupied passerby walking or riding past each day without even as much as a notice.”
Hopefully, going forward, you will take more time to notice and appreciate the great examples of public art that you pass by every day. Monumental Providence: Legends of History in Sculpture, Statuary, Monuments and Memorials will help with a greater understanding of each of the City’s magnificent examples of public art. The book may be purchased at Amazon.
Paul F. Caranci has been a student of history for many years. He is the author of eight books, including The Hanging & Redemption of John Gordon, a true story of Rhode Island’s last execution, and Wired, Caranci’s personal story of how he gambled his thirty-year political career, his reputation, and his family’s safety in his quest to restore good, honest government to a community that needed it most.
WIN! The author is giving away a print copy of Monumental Providence – just leave a comment on this blog post to be eligible. Winner will be selected at random one week from today and the author will contact you directly.