Mural to greet drivers entering state on I-95

The Times, November 4, 2013 • Donna Kenny Kirwan

PAWTUCKET—A row of mill windows…for someone looking in to glimpse bustling industry and for someone looking out to dream big dreams. This is the image that will soon greet motorists heading into Rhode Island on Interstate 95 near exits 29 and 30 in Pawtucket.

A 289-foot long highway mural, featuring an image by nationally known artist Gretchen Dow Simpson, is nearing completion. It is one of six murals commissioned as part of a highway beautification initiative by Gov. Lincoln Chafee and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), and the second to feature the work of Dow Simpson, a New York City transplant who has made Pawtucket her home.

The mural, similar to an earlier one painted on a retaining wall along I-95 near Cottage Street, is a repeated design of windows based on a painting of a vintage-style window that was done by Dow Simpson. The design was enlarged to scale by Dow Simpson and reproduced on the highway wall by muralist Munir D. Mohammed, with assistance from Nixon Leger.

“I’m very, very happy with it,” said Dow Simpson, who was a frequent visitor to the project site during its six weeks of production. “I never dreamed of doing something like this, and seeing my work on such a large scale…it’s incredibly exciting.” She admits, “I keep driving by!”

Originally from Massachusetts, Dow Simpson spent two years at the Rhode Island School of design and then moved to New York City, where she became known for creating the artwork that graced 58 covers of The New Yorker magazine. She later moved to Rhode Island and settled in Pawtucket, where she maintains a studio on Montgomery Street and is active in several arts organizations.

Dow Simpson said she was approached by Chafee, who knew of her work, to do a mural for Pawtucket as the gateway into Rhode Island from Massachusetts. She said she spent many hours driving around the Blackstone Valley and taking photographs of old mills in search of an iconic image. However, she didn’t find anything that suited her vision. She returned to a painting she had done of a window at an old dairy on Cottage Street, and it seemed to convey the feeling she was looking for of the area’s industrialized past.

The mural posed technical challenges that involved not only transposing the original painting to scale but also designing the repetitive pattern of the windows to suit the changing size of the retaining wall, which is as large as 6-feet in the middle and then narrows on the sides. Dow Simpson credits her new husband, Jim Baird, a retired Brown University chemistry professor, for helping her to figure out the best ways to transpose the image.

Munir D. Mohammed, an accomplished artist who is also artistic director at the International Gallery for Heritage and Culture, said it was “an honor to be chosen to do my first highway mural” and that he “looks forward to the unveiling of this work for the beautification of our state highway.”

Mohammed said that according to RIDOT, this was the largest mural to be commissioned to far, and painting it “wasn’t an easy task.” “One of the challenges was the inability to stand back and observe the work and make the necessary corrections, but I have to depend on my experience, with the help of my assistant, Nixon Leger, to get it right.”

Another challenge was working on scaffolding. “While I have done close to 25 murals, it still takes a toll on you physically when you go up and down from one end to the other every day.” He added that he now understands the importance of wearing a hard hat, and also learned to get used to the noise of cars speeding by.

Mohammed also said that this was the first time he has painted a mural of another artist’s work. As such, he enlisted Dow Simpson’s guidance and welcomed her input—a partnership that he said was important to the success of the project. He also thanked Cardi Corporation for its involvement.

Jonathan Stevens, director of special projects for the Governor’s Office, said the highway beautification initiative was something that Chafee felt strongly about and which he began to initiate shortly after taking office. It involved an enormous amount of work because of the regulatory process, but the projects are finally becoming completed. “The governor feels this is part of economic development and that it’s best to refresh the entrances of the byroad into our state,” said Stevens.

Stevens said that in addition to the two Gretchen Dow Simpson murals in Pawtucket, there are murals in Hopkington, near the Connecticut border, East Greenwich, Providence, East Providence, near the Massachusetts border there, and one planned for the Eddy Street underpass near Rhode Island Hospital. All have been paid for through an 80/20 percent split of federal and state dollars, with federal paying the larger share, except for the one on Eddy Street, which is a public/private partnership between RIDOT and Rhode Island Hospital in celebration of the hospital’s 150th anniversary.

Stevens said he didn’t have the cost of the latest mural, but gave as an example the last one, in East Providence, which cost about $87,000. The state’s share was about $18,000, with federal funding paying the rest.

Like Dow Simpson, the artists selected for the murals are all nationally known, but have ties to the Ocean State. They include illustrator David Macauley, a RISD graduate, and Anthony Russo, a North Providence native who has designed book covers and other projects.

Stevens said the Pawtucket murals are meant to celebrate Blackstone Valley in a historical context, especially in light of the federal government’s interest in having Slater Mill and the surrounding Blackstone River area designated as a national park.

Stevens said that because of the location of the latest mural, which would be difficult for people to access, there is not going to be a formal unveiling at the site. He said that perhaps next spring, there will be a celebration of the artwork once planned landscaping is completed from Pawtucket to Attleboro and new highway “Welcome” signs are installed.

Stevens said that Rhode Island joins only three other states, California, Utah and Arizona, that have similar highway murals. He also gives RIDOT credit for being willing to include design elements in these and other highway projects. “Hopefully, people will get the message that Rhode Island is a state where art is really important,” he said.

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