One artist will be picked to humanize the Rhode Island State Police. No statues, please.

A look at the search process for public art for the new West Greenwich barracks and the challenge facing three finalists

By: - Monday October 16, 2023 5:01 am

One artist will be picked to humanize the Rhode Island State Police. No statues, please.

A look at the search process for public art for the new West Greenwich barracks and the challenge facing three finalists

By: - 5:01 am

The bronze statue of a Rhode Island state trooper installed in 2010 by South Dakota sculptor Benjamin Victor stands at attention outside the Rhode Island State Police Public Safety Complex in North Scituate. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

The bronze statue of a Rhode Island state trooper installed in 2010 by South Dakota sculptor Benjamin Victor stands at attention outside the Rhode Island State Police Public Safety Complex in North Scituate. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

Outside the Rhode Island State Police headquarters in North Scituate is a monumental man of bronze: Uniformed, alert and armed.

Plans underway for a new Rhode Island State Police barracks in West Greenwich call for public art on the front lawn. Will the new barracks sport another man in uniform?

No, anything but that: “A figurative statue or memorial is not desired,” read a call for entries the Rhode Island State Council on The Arts (RISCA) issued in early March 2023. 

Gov. Dan McKee’s capital budget for 2023-2025 recommended $30.1 million from the Capital Plan Fund for the Southern Barracks’ construction. Per a general law, a portion of this construction budget will go toward public artwork to be installed onsite. Managing the barracks’ $100,000 allotment for acquisition of an artwork is RISCA’s responsibility.

General law 42-75.2-2, also known as the Allocation for Art for Public Facilities Act, is “calculated on eligible expenses in the construction budget” for whatever state building is being made or renovated, a RISCA spokesperson clarified. Facilities budgeted over $250,000 redirect at least 1% of that funding toward artworks for public display. This law also prescribes how the artwork selection committee should be assembled. 

RISCA began the search for suitable candidates by first collaborating with the State Police to assemble the selection panel. It was this panel of five—an architect, a building rep, a community member and two artists—who crafted the open call’s recommendations.

The statue outside State Police headquarters by Benjamin Victor, who now lives in Boise, Idaho, was also commissioned via an open call process in 2010. But a lot can change in 13 years. So, why the implicit ban on stoic figures standing tall this time around?

Molly Dickinson, the director of RISCA’s Public Art & Cultural Facilities Program, explained the panel’s decision in an email via a RISCA spokesperson: “There was a preference for something different than [headquarters] and for each barracks to have their own unique piece.” 

The open call for that “unique” piece was open to artists from New England and New York, who were eligible to submit their portfolios through May. The panel would then select the three strongest candidates for a barracks site visit in June. The finalists’ proposals would emerge over the summer. The last artist standing would see their proposed artwork approved at a RISCA meeting in September.

That was apparently an optimistic timeline. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the panel finally gathered at the Rhode Island State Police Museum in Scituate (right next to headquarters) to choose their top three from 58 total applicants. The panel decided on Boris Bally of Providence, Jean-Marc Superville Sovak of Wallkill, N.Y., and Joshua Enck of Rochester, N.Y. 

The finalists have yet to propose site-specific designs. That won’t happen until after they visit the (similarly unfinished) barracks. As the entry call noted: “It is not considered best practice for an agency to ask an artist to craft a proposal without financial compensation.” So artists sent in portfolios, résumés and “very brief” descriptions of what their hypothetical artwork might entail.

The Thomas Pomplin Memorial at Flywheel Park in Piermont, N.Y., honors the 28-year-old Black man who was the first line of duty death of the Town of Piermont Fire Company. The memorial was created by the artist Jean-Marc Superville Sovak. (Courtesy of the artist)

Superville Sovak emerged as a strong contender early in the meeting. Somewhat ironically, his past work was among the most representational the panel reviewed. It was also germane to the entry call’s requisite subject matter. One example is Superville Sovak’s memorial for Thomas Pomplin, a Black firefighter from Piermont, N.Y., who died in 1854, the fire company’s first death in the line of duty. Pomplin appears not as impervious bronze in a starched uniform, but is instead a plainclothes portrait stenciled out of steel, as if imprinted on the surrounding landscape.    

Still, Superville Sovak said in an email that his public works have never been “so closely associated with a state-run institutional space, let alone police barracks …Until now, I never anticipated envisioning what kind of public art project could successfully merge the mission of the Rhode Island State Police and my own interests in the narratives of multi-racial identities that make up the DNA of this country, as well my own.”

How applicants were judged

Superville Sovak’s email noted that he “consider[s] RISCA a comparatively generous and well-run statewide organization that has a distinctly artist-centered approach.” He’s eager for the chance to do what he says a public artist does best: “Getting a bunch of people who may not share the same interests all in the same room and accomplishing something collectively.”

Coincidentally that could also describe the Oct. 4 meeting, in which Dickinson guided the five panelists toward a concrete set of finalists. Projected off Dickinson’s laptop was a spreadsheet that averaged scores previously assigned by the panel. The higher-scoring entrants floated to the top and, with the meeting scheduled to last only two hours, Dickinson suggested streamlining discussion to the top 13. One by one, the panelists discussed the aesthetic and logistic merits of the spreadsheet’s upper echelon, as well as some notables who scored slightly lower. Then each panelist ranked their personal top fives. From these lists, Dickinson used a ranked choice model to determine the three finalists plus three alternates. 

Besides the forbidden figuration, the panel had determined previously that “artwork affixed to the building itself,” like a mural, was also verboten. Per the entry call, art capable of evoking a “welcoming atmosphere [that] might help ‘humanize the badge’ and create connection with the community” was another plus. 

“We should stick to the [published] qualifications,” Dickinson reminded the panelists at the start of the meeting.

Finalist Joshua Enck of Rochester, N.Y. is shown working on one of his sculptures in a day series titled ‘Extempore #22’ on July 12, 2019, at left, during his Windgate Residency at the Museum for Art in Wood in Philadelphia. (Ellie Richards)

Finalist Enck exemplified one genre of acceptability: freestanding sculptural abstraction. Enck’s generally large, steel-and-paint pieces seemed to fulfill the stipulations of visible, friendly and flexible to further requests. Many had just a splash of color, like “Ossicone,” which was otherwise an earthy brown.  

“Just adding that blue makes it stand out,” panelist and State Police Corp. Stephen Vinton said of Enck’s sculpture. He envisioned the artist making “a pointed anchor…something like that could be really nice.”

Bally, the only local finalist, impressed the panel with his repurposing of traffic signs—an appropriate choice for a barracks that’ll sit on the New London Turnpike. Bally’s work seemed to buck the requirement of nothing wall-dependent. But Dickinson and the panel discussed the possibility of fencing to display such work, as long as it didn’t interfere with sight lines needed for security reasons.  

Without figuration, it was color, shape and texture that reigned as points of visual interest. Just as interesting is the idea of visual abstraction in service of and paid for by the state. Dickinson adores the Art for Public Facilities Act so much that she read its first paragraph aloud at the meeting. But with greater funds come greater stakes. The pure subjectivity so often assumed as inherent to art didn’t quite apply here. 

Or, as Dickinson put it: “‘Is it lovely artwork?’ is one thing. ‘Is it responsive to the call?’ is another.” 

Providence artist Boris Bally used upcycled traffic signs to create ‘Converging Ripples,’ 2018, for the Jewish Community Center of Omaha’s Main Campus Entrance Facade. (Courtesy of the artist)

In this context, materials proved just as important as optics. One top-scoring artist made fountains. Panelist Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson, an artist who is vice chairman of the Pocasset Pokanoket Tribe, wondered aloud and chuckled: “In the winter, will there be water?”

Dickinson noted that funds are earmarked for preservation, but not everyday maintenance costs. So, no water. The limited appeal of a dry fountain deterred the panel from an otherwise strong submission.

'Is it lovely artwork?’ is one thing. ‘Is it responsive to the call?’ is another.

– Molly Dickinson, director of Rhode Island State Council on the Art’s Public Art & Cultural Facilities Program

But artists can adapt, suggested panelist Deborah Baronas, a Warren-based artist who’s made public installations for both the State Police and the Veterans Home in Bristol. For these projects, Baronas incorporated sturdy, tempered glass, in a departure from her usual preference for billowy (and flammable) fabrics.

At one point, panelist Vinton suggested an artist use “staggered” panels like the ones on view inside the Lincoln barracks.

“You know what I’m talking about?” he asked.

“That’s Deborah’s work,” Dickinson said.

“Well, I’m glad you like it,” Baronas added.

After two hours of discussion, the panel agreed they all liked a few artists enough to declare the finalists … finally. 

With the three chosen ones identified, the panel’s work was done for the day. Dickinson then opened the floor for public comment. A brief silence followed. A museum worker and this writer were the only ones present. 

“No comment was offered,” Dickinson recorded. 

83% white and 90% male

That’s not to say the public is uninterested in art meant to be displayed for their benefit. But the public has also not forgotten the still-rippling summer of 2020, when talk of defunding or abolishing police erupted into mainstream discourse with conviction and intensity. A concurrent wave of protests defied the weight of statues with lots of hands and rope. 

“Protect[ing] the inherent rights of the people to live in freedom and safety” is part of the State Police’s stated mission. Obviously the citizenry’s “inherent rights” are meant to be inalienable regardless of one’s personal feelings about police. And it’s true that the superintendent of the State Police, Col. Darnell S. Weaver, is the first Black man to hold that position — something noted by Superville Sovak as “a demonstration that the process of repair can resemble a commitment to diversity in the highest positions of authority.”

But it’s also true that the State Police remain mostly white and male: 83% of current troopers are white and 90% are men. In the trooper class of 2022, there were 24 white men, two Black graduates (one man, one woman), and four Hispanic men.  

A want for visual, and not demographic, variety ostensibly motivated the panel’s decision to discourage classical figuration. But in a context shaped by ongoing protest, it also doubles as tact. This RISCA panel seems to have tread as carefully as Elmer Fudd during wabbit season. 

But back in 2010, the selection panel that commissioned Benjamin Victor’s statue was unafraid to wax rhapsodic about the classicality of the young, white, male body it depicted. They praised the then-South Dakota sculptor for evoking the “iconic nature of the knight in shining armor, the Greco-Roman military tradition, the Roman soldier, the protector,” per a quote in the Providence Journal. 

That “protector” is armed with a SIG Sauer P226, which Victor spent hours detailing, even though it can only be seen with a stepladder.  

Now compare this perspective on public art to that of Superville Sovak: “It is my sincere hope that this project can contribute a material representation of what repair can look like,” he said via email. “What makes a monument, in the end, will only be defined by the collective recognition of a monument as being worthy of the name. Public art should act as a mirror. In that sense, I am invested in the struggle for the monuments we deserve. And we should all deserve the best.” 

Six miles from State Police headquarters is one of these mirror images. Who exactly it reflects is a question worth asking. On Monday, Oct. 9, a Christopher Columbus statue made its grand re-debut in Johnston’s War Memorial Park, after having been removed from Providence in 2020. Columbus was met with a ceremony and applauding crowds. Video of the event shows town workers anticlimactically removing a blue tarp which then snagged, momentarily leaving Columbus’ face covered. Was he feeling bashful?

Superville Sovak himself pondered the emotional life of statues in a 2022 exhibit that asked, “‘Can a sculpture feel pain? Can a sculpture feel others’ pain?’” In one performance, he poked and prodded the stone flesh of a supine Columbus, looking for answers. 

If statues do feel pain or can empathize, then Columbuses nationwide had a rough summer in 2020: effigies were set aflame, went swimming in Baltimore Harbor, and got decapitated twice. Providence, always ahead of trend, saw its Columbus statue attacked with paint in late 2019. 

A bucket of red paint, flung in the middle of the night? That fits the definition of vandalism, sure. You could also call it a public comment.  



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Alexander Castro
Alexander Castro

Alexander Castro is a writer, journalist and curator who often covers and critiques arts and culture. In 2022, Castro joined the Visual Arts department at Roger Williams University as an adjunct professor and exhibitions director.