Providence Artist Edward Bannister Will Be Honored with a Statue This Fall

Several months of events celebrating the life of this prolific, African American artist will lead up to the PVD Fest-weekend unveiling in September.

A rendering shows that statue’s location at Market Square on the East Side of Providence. (Courtesy of the Bannister Community Art Project)

On a February night in 1880, sixteen artists and art collectors met in Providence. All sixteen agreed there was a need for a place where artists could exhibit their work in the city, as well as an organization that would promote “art culture.” A charter was quickly drawn up, and the Providence Art Club was born.

Only the second such club in the nation, the Providence Art Club would help kickstart the city’s role as a center for the arts in New England. It was significant for another reason, too: Of the sixteen original founders, six were women, and one was an African American man, an unusual makeup for an arts institution of that time period.

“You’re talking about a time that’s under fifty years past the Emancipation Proclamation. And [located] here in Rhode Island, which has its roots in slavery, but at that same time had a very robust and strong community of individuals that were free Africans,” says Jennifer Davis-Allison, co-chair of the Bannister Community Art Project.

That man, Edward Mitchell Bannister, is the subject of a new sculpture that will be unveiled at Market Square in Providence during PVD Fest this fall. The project, spearheaded by the Providence Art Club, has grown from its roots as a public art installation to include several months of programming and educational opportunities showcasing the artist’s life and legacy. Close to a dozen community partners have signed on to the effort, including Stages of Freedom, Brown University, the Rhode Island Black Storytellers and Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts.

“It just keeps growing. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had so much positivity around this project,” says Nancy Gaucher-Thomas, another co-chair of the project.

Edward Bannister was born in 1828 in New Brunswick, Canada. He traveled to Boston, where he learned to sculpt and paint, and later moved to Providence to pursue his career. In 1857, he married Christiana Carteaux, a businesswoman and salon owner who, alongside her husband, would become a prominent member of Rhode Island’s social scene. Together, the two were ardent abolitionists, supporting the Underground Railroad and devoting their resources to activism and philanthropic organizations.

In 1876, Bannister came to national attention when his painting, “Under the Oaks,” was awarded a first-prize medal in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Upon learning his race, the judges considered rescinding the award. It was only at the insistence of his white competitors that he was awarded the prize.

“They always saw him as one of the primary movers in gathering people together and making this a real community of artists,” Gaucher-Thomas says about Bannister’s peers at the Providence Art Club. “As time went on, he became more and more popular not only in the way he held himself in the community, but his paintings.”

Several years ago, Pawtucket-based artist Gage Prentiss created a bust of Bannister that now sits in the art club’s galleries. At the time, Gaucher-Thomas says, Prentiss expressed interest in doing a larger sculpture that would help raise awareness of the prolific artist’s legacy.

“He sort of felt a kinship, because he’s a painter also. He felt as though he wanted to tell Bannister’s story,” she says.

The project came together quickly, with the Papitto Opportunity Connection and private donors contributing $200,000 for the statue. The art club formed an advisory committee and held town halls to determine the community’s expectations for the project. From the beginning, Gaucher-Thomas says, it was clear stakeholders were seeking more than simply a statue on the East Side.

“Knowing one’s history in and of itself gives you claim to so much more. For us, the fact that the community is engaged and the awareness of this man resonates so strongly across so many different communities is very, very important,” Davis-Allison says.

“It’s a reclaiming and a reframing of what we know historically, but I think it also is giving folks this opportunity and impetus to allow us to determine how we want it to be going forward,” she adds.

In May, Stages of Freedom will host the first of several events, a walking tour of Edward and Christiana Bannisters’ lives on May 21. The organization, home to a museum of local African American history, has a special connection to Bannister: Its headquarters mark the location where Bannister would have walked home from one of his studios to his home on the East Side. Later this year, a plaque dedicated to Christiana will be unveiled outside Stages of Freedom, directly across the Providence River from her husband’s statue.

“Christiana and he used to walk across that bridge as they went to their home. It was just so appropriate to have him looking out over the river across that bridge, and now there will be a plaque celebrating Christiana,” Gaucher-Thomas says.

In June and July, the Providence Art Club will host a national exhibition celebrating BIPOC artists, followed by a regional exhibition of artists from New England and the Northeast in August. The exhibits will culminate with the statue dedication weekend Sept. 8–10, including a block party and the unveiling of the statue on Sunday afternoon.

Later events include a celebration of Bannister’s birthday in November and a traveling exhibit on his life currently being planned by Dietrich Neumann, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown University.

In the meantime, work continues on the statue, which still needs to be cast in bronze before its installation in the fall. For his inspiration, Prentiss drew in part on a photograph of Bannister sitting on a bench and painting while looking out on Narragansett Bay. His design shows the artist seated on a bench, leaving room for curious passersby to sit and pose with the artist or learn about his life from a QR code posted nearby.

“It invites you to come and sit. Even in his posture on the bench — it doesn’t necessarily just look like a memorial. It creates a sense of curiosity. It doesn’t so much give you answers. I’m hoping it sparks asking questions. Questions are like an invitation to know more,” Davis-Allison says.

To learn more about the Bannister Community Art Project or follow along with Prentiss’s work on the statue, visit



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