“I am not an artist”

There is a single word, “Grace,” cradling a seed that sprouts a solitary flower in bloom.

The flower is layered over a brilliant blue sky, a mural in miniature painted around all four sides of an electric utility box on a sidewalk — the kind of box that’s usually an ugly imposition on an already imposing urban landscape. But on this one, “Seed for the Soul” is inscribed on a corner of the box, and purple mountains rise majestically on the back.

It is not the only oasis of public art in Pawtucket. Across this gritty, post-industrial city, there are other boxes with uplifting words — Healing, Love, Hope — lettered across a spectrum of unabashedly bright backdrops, grassy plains and sunsets, different scenes on different corners, all of them striking. Many are the work of one man who will tell you he’s “not an artist.”

Retired Pawtucket police officer David Borek saw these scenes and liked how they transformed the brutal into the beautiful in a very public way. And as he admired the works, an idea sprouted. Through friends at City Hall, he tracked down the painter, a lifelong city resident named Paris Fisher. The fuchsia-petaled daisy rising against a wispy blue sky on the portico of Borek’s Pawtucket home marks their first collaboration.

Two years later, we’re in the driveway at Borek’s home, looking at their latest project.

In front of the garage, there’s a blue tarp dotted with paint cans and spattered with a rainbow of spills, an accidental Jackson Pollock. Fisher stirs a brilliant yellow paint below the enormous canvas of a double-wide overhead garage door, its once conservatively bland white aluminum finish now an arresting panorama, a desert road heading into a sunset.

“I am not an artist,” he tells me as he brushes paint carefully along the edges of the mural’s golden sun. “I know artists,” he says, growing as he does from a talented family tree — his mother, an uncle, a cousin. “I am just a community worker who uses art to encourage others.”

Fisher is a lifelong resident of Pawtucket who grew up in the Prospect Heights housing development and searched for ways to help his community. His younger self used hip-hop, rap and oratorical talents to organize neighborhood events. He found he could channel his energy into drawing others in. He got a degree in social work and expanded those efforts.

These days, Fisher is an independent contractor working with young people in the community, focusing on mental health. “Not in the clinical sense,” he says, but rather “in the day-to-day coping” with difficulties and stress. “Kids are going through a lot these days,” he says, so art is the vehicle he uses to teach techniques and tips to help them balance life and stay healthy.

There’s a parallel that runs through what he does and what the kids do. No matter what you’re doing, he says, it’s not about whether you’re a great artist. “It’s about how great you use the talent you have.”

Tomorrow he’ll be back to his regular job, leading a substance-abuse prevention program at Pawtucket’s Blackstone Academy Charter School. It’s there, in the fertile fields of earnest potential, that he performs his real artistry: planting the seeds of hope, healing, love and grace so the community’s next generation can sprout and blossom and create its own scenes of ethereal brightness.

copyright 2019 / Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design



Sal send 2

I watch the man edging toward a large marker in a family plot.

Clutched in his fist are pristine — dowels holding bright, crisp, napkin-size renditions of the Stars and Stripes. They’re a contrast with the flags wedged under his arm, mere remnants of their past glory — dowels broken and warped, cloth edges shredded, stripes torn, and the once-blue fields of stars sun-faded. He handles them all, new and old, with the respect they command.

Around the big marker in the plot there are smaller stones bearing mere initials. There’s nothing to indicate a war veteran is interred here, but Farrell W. “call me Sal” Salgueiro has been here enough times to know. He pushes the dowel of a new flag into the ground next to one of the small markers. Before Memorial Day, he will have done this again and again and again, at about 400 graves of East Providence war veterans.

At 72, Sal knows he won’t be able to do this forever. He’s a Vietnam War veteran who spent 1966 as an Army motor-pool records clerk in that ravaged country halfway around the world. About 17 years ago, he began joining his father-in-law, a World War II veteran, on these flag-replacing rounds. Eventually Sal and a few other guys, veterans like him from VFW Post 5382, relieved the older men. The post closed down some years ago and Sal outlived his buddies, so these days it’s just him and his flags.

“This is the toughest part,” he says, pointing off to the right, “the old part” that is Newman cemetery, one of three cemeteries — Newman, Hunt and Rumford — in the perimeter that he tends. “These are tough. They are slate and hard to read. You got some [graves] that go back to the 1700s in there. You got some old stones, old soldiers.”

Across the street, in the larger cemetery next to the Newman Congregational Church, Lions Club members replace flags for the veterans holidays. The Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter has offered up Cub Scouts to help Sal, but he’s declined. “They don’t know where the markers are,” he says. “They wouldn’t know how to find them.” He’s concerned that some who served their country would be missed.

Slowly, Sal heads back to his SUV to carefully slip the old flags into a bin for a proper decommissioning in Exeter. He’s placed about 140 flags and he’s done for the day. He’ll come back again soon to finish, to make sure he didn’t miss anyone just because their grave was hidden or so old that the name has faded away. By Memorial Day there will be a new flag at each grave, old and new, of every veteran here, all of them treated with the respect they deserve.

copyright 2018 / Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design

The Lighter Side

The lighter side

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon when I met East Greenwich sisters Olivia and Sydney Estner visiting the RISD Museum on Jan. 7.

It was the museum’s Super Art Sunday, a family-oriented, free-admission affair, and most visitors were wandering the main galleries or gathering in family-oriented sketching, craft-building and kids’ programs scattered among the art and design exhibits.

But the Estner sisters made their way down to the quiet reaches of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery on the first floor. I asked Olivia, a college freshman on break, and high school student Sydney, who would “like to do something in arts or fashion,” what brought them to the student gallery on this fine day.

It was the light, they said, the sunbeam painting a broad swath of the room in the searing white and sidelong shadows of winter, a fashion-noir runway perfectly suited to their real imperative, which they revealed with sisterly laughter: “We like taking pictures of ourselves.” In this frame, Olivia poses while Sydney photographs.

The work behind them is “Buldge,” a series of fabric, poly-fil, rope and acrylic paint on panels, by Lily Angotti and Matthew Shelley.

copyright 2018 / Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design

A Man for All Seasons

Man for All Seasons Column final

The stars were the hardest part, he tells me, showing off the American flag he has painted on the side of a haphazard-looking shed, an agglomeration of boards, lattice and scrap plywood that sits smack in the middle of the wide, muddy space. When stencils failed him in his quest to neatly frame the nation’s firmament, he says, he used a cookie cutter to “get ’em right.”

Surprisingly, the “water shed” is as solid as the man showing me around his community garden plot at Walker Farm. He is P.J. Russell, and he resides in Providence, but it’s out here that he really seems to live. On the day I visit, the 70-year-old is in his element, walking straight and tall and projecting like a character in a Turner Classic Movie.

Russ, as he likes to be called, talks about working the soil, growing peas, tomatoes, garlic, watermelons and other things. Rotating his crops so he doesn’t exhaust the soil. Relishing the hard work he’s plowed into this 83-by-42-foot plot for a decade now.

We take the stairs to the “upper floor,” a reinforced plywood roof with gutters to channel precipitation down into industrial-size blue plastic barrels. In this offseason, if you could call it that, Russ has already collected about 200 gallons of snowmelt and spring rain to use during summer dry spells.

From the top of the shed we can see Hundred Acre Cove and its marshes. In the summer, he sees everything — sailboats, osprey and the rising green of the 20 or so plots of his Walker Farm neighbors. “I know everybody — ‘Hey you want a hamburg? You want a hot dog?’” he half-pantomimes. It is a very social place.

We head back down, past the protective boundaries of his kingdom lying in wait, rolls of wire fencing that he’ll install to keep out crop-stealing pests, some on four legs and some on two.

Russ is grinning as he picks up his saw and starts through a board. “Work” isn’t a word he uses for his labors out here in the place where life comes out of the ground and the stars shine even on the brightest days.

“Eat, play, garden, exercise,” he says. “The outside — tons of stuff to do.”

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design



Let’s face it, you see a guy like Willie Barr walk into a church on a Sunday in a dress sports coat of red, white and blue, festooned with the name of his favorite football team, and you might take notice. You might assume that Willie is an over-the-top sports fan: one of those guys in the stands on TV that are always pulling off their shirts in frigid weather to display the team logo painted on their belly, complementing their two-toned face as it peeks out from a giant inflatable helmet, but that’s just not Willie Barr’s style. For the 68-year-old Barr, a deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Woonsocket, fandom is about friendships, not fanatics.

Willie followed the Minnesota Vikings in his younger days but was introduced to Patriots football by his best friend, Steve Frechette, and his interest grew when their favorite player, Vikings running back Chuck Foreman, was traded to New England. The two men bought their first season tickets in 1977 and bonded as they watched years of games together on the aluminum bleacher seats at the old Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro. Steve died a few years ago, but the Patriots games keep his memory going.

While Willie admits that not every one in church will be happy when he wears his Patriots sport coat to church this Sunday (the same day the Pats take on the Steelers for the AFC title), he won’t mind the glares because he says there are a lot of Steelers fans at St. James, and others who just don’t like the Pats’ success. That’s probably why this Sunday he’ll accessorize with the jacket’s matching pants, tie and hat.

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design