Art Bridges Transforms Pawtucket Overpass




In 2016 new public artwork by Suikang Zhao will transform Pawtucket’s George Street Overpass into an iconic gateway that reflects the city’s artistic and economic vibrancy. The art is the product of an innovative, city-led project called Art Bridges, which was the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project is one example of the policies and initiatives developed by Pawtucket to enhance its thriving arts community and support continued growth downtown and in the rest of the city. 

Art Bridges was the recipient of APA Rhode Island’s 2015 Current Topic Award for Excellence in Community Engagement.

The city could have simply put out a call for artists, gathered a small selection committee, hired its preferred candidate, and installed the work. However, a major goal of the project was to have community engagement efforts that reached residents in Pawtucket who have not traditionally been included in the city’s arts renaissance. This goal served at least two purposes. First, the resulting art work will have significance and meaning for a broad variety of the cultures and backgrounds of Pawtucket’s residents.  Second, the city has found that people are generally much more willing to engage in discussions about public art than about traditional planning activities. Art can be both a figurative and literal bridge that brings different people together and connects them to issues of transportation, economic development, and more in a more accessible way. This knowledge will help Pawtucket in the future, as they design future community outreach efforts, and can serve as a lesson for communities all over Rhode Island.

From January through April 2015, the city organized 20 small and large group discussions around the George Street Overpass project. Smaller gatherings were held in residents’ homes, local art studios, and adult education and high school art classes. Larger public events were held at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Visitors Center downtown. These community conversations were organized to inform the community about this exciting public art initiative, as well as to ask for their input as a way to inform the artists engaged in the project to learn about the character of Pawtucket, its history, and its future. 

Residents that participated were asked what they wanted the selected artist to understand about Pawtucket – its people and character. They were also asked what matters to them, and what they want those driving on I-95 or walking over the George Street Overpass, to think and feel as they encounter the overpass. The answers expressed the duality inherent in Pawtucket: a strong connection to the past and a desire to look ahead; the diversity of its residents and oneness in shared goals; edgy urban character and a love for the rivers and natural environment; and the focus on the close-knit resident community and welcoming of outsiders.

In December 2015, the Artist Selection Committee, out of over 110 entries, chose the concept created by Suikang Zhao, a Chinese sculptor from New York, as the winning submission. By the fall of 2016, the highly visible public art piece will be installed on the bridge’s walkway, fence, and overpass structure.  You can continue to follow Art Bridges Pawtucket by visiting its website: http://artbridgespawtucket.org/