A Charlestown woman and member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe is the face of a giant new mural taking shape in downtown Providence.
“It’s crazy,” Lynsea Montanari said when talking about seeing her likeness painted on a five-story brick wall at 32 Custom House St. in Providence. “Seeing it for the first time was the most exciting thing ever.”
It’s the work of the muralist and street artist Gaia, who is collaborating with The Avenue Concept, a public art nonprofit based in Providence. Work started Aug. 27 and is expected to be finished in another week.
The mural depicts Montanari holding a black and white photo of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett tribal elder who founded the Tomaquag Museum 60 years ago. The background is a grouping of native flowers and berry plants, along with a red-winged blackbirds and a deer, set against a blue sky.
The image has great meaning for Montanari, an educator who worked at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. She’s still very connected to the museum through her work now with tribal youth.
“My big thing is empowering the local community and educating the public … finding ways to create understanding,” she said. “So many people don’t realize we exist.”
Montanari said she feels incredibly honored to be depicted with Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett/Pokanoket-Wampanoag, known at birth as Mary E. Glasko, who founded the museum in 1958. She called the elder an inspiration, as well as an educator and activist for indigenous people and a key player in the Narragansetts gaining federal recognition as a tribe.
“She was a huge factor in gathering and submitting the paperwork for that to happen,” Montanari said.
As an artist, Montanari said she was amazed by Gaia’s depictions of her and Princess Red Wing, who died in 1987 at age 91. “I love to draw people, and it was great to be able to flip the script,” she said.
The Avenue Concept said it wanted to make use of the 100- by 110-foot east-facing wall at 32 Custom House St. for several years. “It’s a huge surface looking out onto the heart of the city, making it a perfect canvas,” the group said in a blog post announcing the project last month.
Gaia, based in Baltimore, paints under the name of the Greek earth goddess. His work has been commissioned in cities including Buenos Aires, Seoul, London and Amsterdam, and Forbes magazine highlighted him in 2015 as one of their “30 Under 30 in Art and Style.”
Gaia took inspiration from the history of the Custom House Street location and incorporated aspects of the state’s indigenous people. Gaia’s participation led to The Avenue Concept joining with the Tomaquag Museum and to working with Montanari.
The mural is being produced with another large-scale piece, local artist Sam White’s “Party Shark —Seals Galore,” on the facade of the Providence National Bank building on Weybosset Street. The murals are commissioned as one-year installations intended to enliven the streetscape in the downtown financial district.