If you’ve walked by 891 Broad Street recently, you’ll have noticed three new benches jeweled with birds, beasts, fish and flowers.
The benches, which flank our doors and are adorned with dozens of ceramic tiles, represent the talents of four years of ¡CityArts! young artists from Deb DeMarco’s Art and Nature classes. Earlier this month, Deb led a team of Bryant University students in installing the tiles, and she and staff have been hard at work to complete the installation.
Deb agreed to tell me about the project – so long as I helped grout and polish, too. Crouched on the ground, using her fingers to rub grout in gaps between tiles, Deb told me about the love, work, and wildlife that went into these benches.
Could you give our readers an overview of the project and how our Art and Nature classes came to work on these tiles?
Art and Nature has been a big part of learning at ¡CityArts! because we’re an urban arts group. Stewardship and responsibility kind of follows nature and order, but a lot of these kids haven’t had a good amount of experience with nature. So any opportunity to get them on a bus and travel to places like wildlife refuges here in RI, places where they can go, see it, be in it, learn how to process it, are welcomed. So we started – when I got here, I guess four years ago – we were collaborating with the Ninegret Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown, so we had a lot of kids visit and we did a mural here that mirrored all of that learning.
Then we decided to design panels, these panels …The first nature mural we did was inside of the building, but this mural we wanted to be outside and to share a natural space and again to allow the kids an opportunity to study the animals and plants they might encounter on any given day in our wildlife refuges. Then, I thought it would be wise to – wise, as in wise old owl (laughs) – wise to follow the seasons in order so that looking out the window could suggest to the artist a different response at different times of the year. We brought a lot of natural materials into the clay studio at different times of the year, so what you have here then is kind of a visit in time and place with Rhode Island’s wildlife at night, during the winter, fall, spring, and certainly in the summer.
Do you have any favorite tiles?
Each panel represents a class. Each class is anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks in length, and these tiles don’t take a very long time so we had the luxury of really being able to expand on the topic. The panel we’re working on together – this is the winter panel – I really like it because winter is a quiet time. It’s a cold time. It’s not a time that you associate with studying nature, and so we did. We made observations outside the window of the clay studio to the trees right outside our window here in South Providence.
We had studied birds, we had made bird feeders and one of the birds was a woodpecker. One day at the sink, washing with the kids, the kids [said], “Ms. Deb, Ms. Deb, there’s a woodpecker in the tree outside the window!” and I didn’t believe them. You’d think I’d know better. And sure enough, there was the woodpecker. I’ve never seen it before or since, and there it was. Everybody wanted to mirror that on their bare trees. So that’s where all the birds came from that are on the bare trees on these panels.
So many of these tiles focus on different birds and animals. Are there any exceptional examples of Rhode Island wildlife?
The turtle panel – that was a really nice collaboration with the people in Barrington. There is a land trust in Barrington that has developed over time to protect the land and prevent overdevelopment of the waterfront… There’s a turtle that lives only there called the Diamondback Terrapin Turtle. They’re a protected species, an endangered species, and they live there in Barrington. So we got to meet this really nice woman there, Charlotte Sornberger. She was really thrilled to be able to share with kids from Broad Street. The kids really got to see what preserving a species of turtle is all about. You literally have to get physically involved with the life of the turtle and protect it from being consumed by predators. The kids got to see that firsthand, and that’s what this panel is all about: saving the Diamondback Terrapin Turtle.
I can. I can go on and on. A lot of the relief on the outside of the bench looks real because it was generated by real fish that came into the clay studio. Where I live in East Providence, I have Archie’s Bait and Tackle. I went in there one morning looking for some local fish that I could bring to the kids and let them (she chuckles) play around with in the studio. And we did… I learned a lot from Archie’s Bait and Tackle. They’re all about how to catch fish because that’s their livelihood, and that’s the livelihood of a lot of Rhode Islanders. Our economy is somewhat based on the quality of what lives in the bay and what it gives us versus what we give it. There are enormous messages there for kids especially.
So we learned about Atlantic Menhaden, bass fishing, salt water and fresh water and seaweed. I brought a ton of things into the studio. We did a scavenger hunt; I brought in a bunch of sand, and I let them go looking for things. They drew them, molded and made clay relief from it. Then they made these flat tiles that you’re cleaning now. Again, it’s about giving them a ton of information they can process into clay art, and then we did take-home clay projects, too. A lot of that relief on the outside of the mural I’m very proud of because it was generated from real stuff!
Once I brought a crab in – it was a fresh crab from the fish market down the street – and I didn’t realize you have to be very careful when you handle those crabs, and the thing attached itself to my hand. (She laughs.) It was in front of a whole bunch of kids, and it hurt very much! It was really embarrassing. (She laughs again.) It was great – they loved it. “Hello, look at Ms. Deb! Got a crab hanging off her hand!”
Are there any panels that people might not recognize immediately?
The panel over there that we were talking about yesterday – the vernal pond tiles are really interesting. A vernal pond is nothing but a temporary pool of melted snow that occurs in the spring from a cold winter where there’s been a lot of snow and the ground is frozen and the water sort of collects in pools. Those are vernal ponds. They are places that support a large amount of life that seems to go entirely unnoticed. So we studied vernal ponds and then the kids got to make these neat little ponds made out of clay. They had impressions of brown leaves in the bottom of them and then they got to fill the pond with whatever they wanted—tadpole eggs, and frogs, and dragonflies and what have you. So then I had them make tiles for the mural and it was done before it started. It went so easily and so well because the kids had done their learning and really enjoyed what they learned.
How about the sunflower panels?
That was a spring time class, and my goal was to have them all plant sunflower seeds into pots made in the clay studio and then transplant them into anyplace they wanted here in South Providence to propagate a tremendous population of sunflowers. That was the goal.
Did that happen?
I don’t think so. (She laughs.) But we had good intentions, and we made flower pots. The kids appreciated – these are really young kids, 8-10 year olds – and they appreciated what was essential to growth. They learned about light from the sun, water, the rain. All of these things you take for granted, but when you start to think about how significant these are in terms of the life of a plant, then there’s that stewardship and extra responsibility that goes along with learning something that you may have taken for granted. So again, that’s the purpose of making a tile – to talk about what you learned, to respect nature.
Deb stands up to take a look at the tiles we’ve just polished.
This looks great. See how we polished them up? So we’re going to mix a new batch of grout…
Thank you to Deb, Annie Haftl, staff, and the wonderful team of Bryant student volunteers who helped install our new benches. They will be a spot for sunny lunches and after-class lounging for years to come.