A City Bridge Designed to Inspire

The Valley Breeze, March 3 2015 • Ethan Shorey

PAWTUCKET – Organizers of a project designed to transform a city bridge into an art masterpiece say they’re looking for all the help they can get from the public to get it right.

The Department of Planning was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Grant last year that will allow artists to remake the plain George Street overpass across from the Comfort Inn into a “highly visible public art piece.” The art will be installed on the bridge’s walkway, fence, and the actual overpass structure, according to officials.

The George Street overpass takes George Street over I-95. It’s located within easy sight of the arts-inspired Pawtucket River Bridge. Tens of thousands of drivers will see the artwork each day once it’s completed, according to those behind the project.

An NEA “Our Town” grant of $75,000 will be matched locally with another $75,000 and strong support from the city, according to a news release. The project has many partners, including the Pawtucket Foundation and Rhode Island Foundation, which have both donated to the city’s share of the cost.
Margie Butler, the community engagement coordinator for the project, told The Breeze the artwork will go a long way to solidifying Pawtucket’s reputation as a place where the arts are celebrated. This is a permanent fixture in the city, said Butler, with a 30-year lifetime required, so it’s important to get it right on what is currently a “blank canvas.”

Butler and members of the Pawtucket Foundation and Pawtucket Planning Department are inviting anyone from the community who’s interested in giving input on the project to “A Community Conversation” on March 23, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center, 175 Main St.

At that meeting, there will be public art examples from similar projects and organizers will gather input from anyone who wants to share it.

Butler said she is also meeting with as many community groups as possible in an effort to get wide input from residents on what they want the artists to see in Pawtucket. This project is about broadcasting a “creative renaissance that’s been going on for 40 years,” much of it behind the scenes, said Butler, but this city also means different things to different people.

The project allows everyone to have a voice to give artists an idea how they feel about their city and how it should be perceived, said Butler. She and others want a highly visible bridge at a very busy highway exit to be a beautiful new “gateway” to the city. While the artwork won’t please everyone, it’s important for residents to look at it someday and know that their opinions were heard.

Some of the common themes she’s heard to this point include the grit and determination of the city’s residents, the idea of color and its importance, a strong sense of history and how it ties into today, the city’s “maker” identity, and the many cultures that made Pawtucket what it was in the past and is today, said Butler.

When Interstate 95 was first built in Pawtucket, it in some ways cut off many of the city’s neighborhoods from the downtown, say backers of the art initiative.

“This project can help us reconnect neighborhoods and transform a nondescript overpass into an iconic gateway and engaging streetscape that better reflects our vibrant city,” reads a release from the Pawtucket Foundation. “With citizen participation, “we can inspire finalist artists with personal views on our city’s social, historical and current-day character.”

Sue Mara, the deputy city planner who wrote the grant that won the $75,000, said officials wanted a project that would highlight all that is good about Pawtucket and make the city a more attractive place to residents and business owners who may want to lay down roots here. The George Street overpass is a gateway from the highway to the downtown and between the downtown and the Oak Hill and Woodlawn neighborhoods, she said.

The George Street bridge was the top choice from several overpasses because it’s near the new Pawtucket River Bridge, is highly visible, and won’t need to be replaced for a long time, said Mara.

An arts-inspired bridge will show everyone who passes that Pawtucket “is an interesting place” that “cares about public art,” said Mara. This is a city of the arts, she said, but more people need to know it.

By May, three finalist artists will be selected and those three will be developing designs for the overpass art installation by June. Those three will be chosen from 115 artists who answered a national “call for art” last November. Public comment on the three finalist designs will take place in September of this year and the artwork will be installed in the fall of 2016.

NEA Our Town grants recognize public art as a valuable tool in fostering interaction among residents, improving the “livability of spaces” and contributing to economic development.

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