By TIM LEHNERT
PROVIDENCE — UPP Arts’ signature event is its annual Urban Pond Procession, in which an all-ages group of more than 200 — sporting handmade fish costumes, banners and props, led by a brass band — takes to the streets near Mashapaug Pond.
This year’s procession will start at 5:30 p.m. on May 13 at the Mashapaug Pond Boathouse, behind the Ocean State Plaza, proceed to Reservoir Avenue School and end with a celebration at a remediated field near Alvarez High School. This is the organization’s final procession, and, as usual, will feature plenty of music, art and storytelling.
The Urban Pond Procession began in 2007 with a simple mission: educate area residents about health hazards in and around Mashapaug Pond. The South Providence pond is contaminated by heavy metals and other pollutants, and suffers from toxic algae blooms.
The challenge was that many local residents were recent immigrants and had low-level English-language skills. Artist and UPP Arts executive director Holly Ewald spearheaded the creation of colorful, multilingual signs with pictograms warning people not to eat the pond’s fish, and to avoid swimming and playing in the water.
From that kernel — “Mashapaug is Sick” — came an organization that did much more than tell people what not to do; it engaged local students and the community in celebrating the pond and its environmental, industrial and indigenous history. UPP Arts’ multidisciplinary approach created a Mashapaug-centered dialogue amongst artists, scientists, historians, activists, residents and students. The goal was to tell stories about Mashapaug as a natural and human ecosystem, to learn about its storied and difficult past, and to find ways to restore a neglected urban jewel.
Many local and non-local residents alike don’t even know where Mashapaug is, which is perhaps not surprising. The pond is hemmed in by the Huntington Industrial Park and Route 10 on the west, and by Huntington Avenue, train tracks and Reservoir Avenue on the north and east.
Traditionally a working-class area, for many years the neighborhood’s dominant feature was the headquarters of Gorham Silver Manufacturing Co., the world-famous foundry and silver manufacturer, which was bought by Textron in the 1960s, and later decommissioned. Textron and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) have worked for several years to remediate the site, and it’s almost complete.
UPP Arts is in equal measures an exercise in celebration, education and imagination. The organization got off the ground thanks to the help of a local Buddhist temple and two schools that provided space and support for local kids to make art and costumes.
Over the years, partner institutions have ranged from the DEM and city of Providence, to artist-performers Big Nazo, What Cheer? Brigade and the Extraordinary Rendition Band, to environmental groups such as the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island; as well as Brown University’s Public Humanities and Superfund Research Programs, the Tomaquag Museum, New Urban Arts, City Arts for Youth, and local schools including Alvarez and Central High schools, Sophia Academy and the Reservoir Avenue and Gladstone Elementary schools.
Local residents, some of whose time in the area stretches back to before the early 1960s when 500 homes were demolished to make way for the Huntington Industrial Park, have also been a key part of UPP Arts.
The procession is the public face of UPP Arts, but in the “offseason,” students — ranging from third-graders to Ph.D. candidates — academics, local educators, teaching-artists, scientists and members of the public have led and participated in public workshops and in-school classes. They’ve also completed varied projects, including animated stop-motion shorts, murals, props and costumes for the procession, oral histories, and informational signs.
UPP Arts has compiled an impressive collection of written Mashapaug-related cultural and natural-history resources, and the pond has been the site for lessons about local flora and fauna, biodiversity, and water quality.
In 2016, Holly Ewald’s metal sculpture “Full Circle: Art as Reflection” debuted, floating on a platform in the middle of Mashapaug Pond. Several times during the summer, the sculpture was brought to shore near the J.T. Owens Park athletic fields, a screen strung over it, and a movie shown. These films included an oral history of Mashapaug from an indigenous perspective, and a “sound collage” featuring images of abandoned Gorham buildings from before the site was razed.
If there is one take away from the history — natural and human — of Mashapaug Pond, it’s that things change. The same is happening to UPP Arts. Choose your metaphor from the natural world: bird leaving nest, tadpole becoming frog, snake shedding skin; regardless, the organization is changing form.
The 10th anniversary activities and 2017 procession consider the history and future of UPP Arts using four themes called the “Stories of Mashapaug Pond,” which have animated the organization for the past decade: the environmental condition of Mashapaug Pond; the legacy of Gorham and other manufacturers as producers, employers and polluters; Indigenous people and their connection to Mashapaug and Rhode Island’s waterways; and socioeconomics, notably the 1962 displacement of the West Elmwood neighborhood to make way for the Huntington Industrial Park.
Following its final procession, UPP Arts will embark on a two-year Legacy Project. Its physical and digital archives will be organized and presented to Providence Public Library’s Rhode Island Collection and part of UPP Arts’ mission will be taken on by other groups in the community, and perhaps others spun-off into new entities.
Tim Lehnert is a Cranston, R.I., resident.