Interview with Scott Lapham

Interview with Scott Lapham

On a sunny Friday in June, community members and local and state politicians gathered to celebrate AS220 Youth’s latest contribution to the Providence community: two beautiful new bus shelters on Broad Street, decorated with collaged images of the students involved in their design.

Communications interns Lizzie Davis and Victoria Spencer spoke with coordinator Scott Lapham and several members of AS220 youth to find out more about this exciting project. Thanks to Justin Espinal, John Vhogal, Ronya Traynham, Nou Yang, and Edwin Pastor for talking with us!

Scott, can you briefly describe your role at AS220?
Scott: I’m the youth photography coordinator, so I run the youth photography program here at AS220. We have classes after school here, we teach at UCAP middle school, and then the Rhode Island Training School. We also have an apprentice program for young people between the ages of 17 and 21 who are not employed or in school or training, or who don’t have enough employment or school or training, so we have a paid program where they come in and work on professional art projects like the bus shelters, and audio slideshows talking about different aspects of the community and other things–earned income jobs that they can participate in with photography.

What’s your artistic background?
Scott: Well, I am a working artist. I graduated from RISD in 1990, a long time ago. I’ve been living in Providence, and before I had this job I was doing commercial freelance photography, but I’ve been at AS220 in a part-time capacity since 1994 and came on full-time almost five years ago. Now I’m in the youth program.

What was the inspiration for the bus shelter project?
Scott: When we work in the training school, we’re not legally allowed, and we don’t want to morally, to show people’s identities. The students in the training school are incarcerated and they’re juveniles, so when they’re released they have a clean record. That means when they go out they can get employment and housing and a whole host of important life events can happen without the stigma of incarceration following them.

When we do a photography class in the training school we have to conceal their identity. That can happen in a lot of different ways. One of the ways it started to happen was to create collages. We’d photograph people close-up, eyes, mouth, nose, hair, ears, etc., and then we could bring in those color copies that we’d print out and they could cut them up and rearrange them with other people’s facial features, comic book characters, pictures of animals. They could create their own kinds of masks. That grew into just making collages that are kind of Frankenstein portraits with all different people. That became exciting, and that idea of collage came out here to our studio in downtown Providence and to the UCAP middle school. It started in the training school but happened everywhere that we teach. We started making these large-scale, life-size or bigger than life-size collages that would have 10-20 different people all mashed together to create one character. And then when there was a call for proposals for new bus shelters we put them together in one scene to emphasize the life of Broad Street where the bus shelters were to be located, and we got the commission, so that’s how it happened.

What was the process of designing these shelters like?
Scott: There was a request for proposals for a lot of bus shelters. It was open to all artists across the city or the state. And so we found the size specifications and we treated it like it was a mural, and then we had been making a lot of these characters over the past year or so, with the thought that every time we made one we’d completed something and it was finished. Since we had this huge expanse of space to populate with these characters, it was helpful to have a bunch already made. Then we started arranging them to feel like a mural, John Vhogal, with the help of others, collaborated to make the background of a city scene.

And then we looked and we thought, where were the weak spots. We identified a few and made more characters to purposely go in there. Justin worked on that. We made a food truck, there’s a lot of food trucks on Broad Street, so we made a guy in a food truck handing a pastelito to a girl. And that was specifically for that area of the mural. It was a real process and a group effort but it had to come together pretty quickly because the RPF didn’t give us a lot of time. We got the commission and then we tweaked it a little after that, but most of the work had been done by the time we handed it in.

What were all of your roles in creating these shelters?
Scott (to Justin): When you made the pastelito guy and girl.

Justin: That’s right! I built one of the characters on the bus shelter last summer. I took some of the photos for the parts as well. It’s all coming back to me now. I thought you meant literally the bus shelters.

Ronya: The braids right here are my braids. And I helped sketch out with Nick and Scott a big poster. I didn’t feel like doing photography so I sketched things out with him. We sketched out one of the characters. We sketched the outlines of his body so that when we put the pictures in we’d know where every part went.

John: I designed the background. The glass part with those grey lines. So I kind of just did that. It was a team project–everybody did a little piece. Even a piece of my shoe is in a few of these pieces. I think it’s that one right there, the green Chuck Taylors. But they took pictures of everybody, and it was just a team project. The design that I did for the background, I basically just imagined Broad Street, and I just drew out all the lines. I usually go to Broad Street to get chimis and stuff, so I can imagine it.

How do you feel like public art projects like this can shape communities? What have you gained from having your work out there?
Nou: I think that having some of our artwork out in the community is an amazing opportunity, not just for us to show we can do something but for other people to see what we’ve got and what we know.

Scott: I think one of the really exciting things about this project is that it’s for people who are used to looking at art, they really are excited by it, but people who aren’t used to looking at art are really excited about it. Our students are really excited, I’m really excited. We were involved in it, so that would make sense. But then we keep meeting people, people who are riding the bus that don’t know that the person sitting next to them had anything to do with it, they’re then talking about how much they like it.

Nou: I came down here to have a meeting with Scott and then I was looking at the bus benches and this guy looked at me and said, “Wow, those are really cool, huh.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of the people who made it.” And he was like, “No way.” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s actually very exciting.” He said, “It’s such a shock to see that one of the people who created this is here right in front of me!”

How does it feel to have your work out in the community, shaping the face of Providence?
Ronya: Oh, I brag all the time.

Scott: There are two things. There’s this project, but you also worked on the bus project.

Justin: Two years ago, we did another art project with RIPTA and it was about photo maps. We went around and took pictures of random people we didn’t know and then we developed them and then Lynn McCormack came. She was like, I want to do something with these pictures and show people what you guys do. We worked with RIPTA on a whole bunch of ideas, and then eventually we made a bus that was wrapped around with our photos. It’s called “Moving,” and it’s green with black and white photos on the outside and on the ceiling it has all the pictures.

It’s just really cool. To answer the question about how art can impact us, if you tell someone else, “Go to AS220,” they say, “Oh, I’m not going to go there, that’s not me.” But it brings a positive feeling. If you do something good here and it goes out, and one of your friends sees it they’re like, “Oh, AS220, that’s where my friend goes! That place must be good.” They’ll probably check it out. It makes the environment more positive instead of people being on the streets, doing bad stuff.

Ronya: And some of my writing got published, we have our own magazine. It was the first time I wrote since high school. I used to write every day religiously. I wrote a little excerpt in it and I showed my mom. I probably got 15 copies, and she mailed them all to my grandma and everything. That for me was big, having my family be proud of something that I did.

What has been the most rewarding thing about these bus shelters?
Nou: The most rewarding thing is to actually see my work out in the public. That doesn’t happen too often, so it’s exciting to know that my artwork is out there.

Edwin: Another thing I can add to that is to say that it shows the community what we’re about. It shows that young people like to work, and it shows what they can do. It’s about how people work together as a community, and that’s very important for the city of Providence. So many different races, and we worked together as one to make something for everybody to look at. It’s art for everyone to look at.

Scott: Well, I think there’s some real, real pride that students have. And that I have too, when I see the pieces up there. I think it’s a huge public art project that anybody would be excited to be a part of. It’s made by people from the community, which doesn’t always happen. And I think that for a lot of the students that made it, it really has a positive impact on their lives, and they can see it. We also had a student who passed away from violence that was instrumental in making it, and it will be a monument to him that I think is really moving and important. And I also think for the wider community it’s a positive thing where artwork can really be meaningful in a public space. I don’t think it gets much better than that. It’s pretty moving.