PROVIDENCE — Ryan Adams distinctly remembers bringing home the book “Subway Art” from an after-school program as a child. Its pages chronicled the New York City graffiti movement in the 1970s and 1980s with photographs of grand letters and bright, eye-popping colors. Growing up in Portland, Maine, Adams had never seen art on his own city’s streets like the pages of that book. He was hooked.
“After that, I was drawing constantly, and on everything,” said Adams in a recent interview while sitting on a step ladder in front of a mural in Providence he was working on.
As a teenager, he said his mom “didn’t want [him] to have a wild arrest record” and discouraged him from taking his passion for paint around the city. Instead, she gathered a few boards of plywood and 99-cent bottles of spray paint, put them in the backyard, and said he could learn there.
“As a dad now, I look back on that and think: Wow, that was a risk she took,” said Adams. “And I love her for it.”
Now Adams is a painter and muralist in Portland. He’s long meshed his background in exploring traditional graffiti with his signature “gem” style, which he describes as a “geometric breakdown of letterforms, with shadows and highlights included to create depth and movement throughout the pieces.”
On Wednesday, he and his fellow artist assistant Spenser Macleod, were putting the final touches on a new large-scale piece in Providence’s Jewelry District. The Avenue Concept, the privately funded public art program founded more than a decade ago, had commissioned Adams to paint over the “VOTE” mural on the exterior wall of a building on Ship Street. The “VOTE” mural was painted in 2020 by four artists of color — Angela Gonzalez (known for her artist name “AGonza”), Kendel Joseph (also known as “Lucid Traveler”), Jessica Brown (known as “The Lady J”), and ABOVE.
The mural had portraits of local artists and community organizers, protestors who held signs that said “VOTE LOCAL” and “Your Vote is Your Voice.” A QR code directed people to the voter registration page on the Rhode Island secretary of state’s website.
Painting over it, Adams decided to stick to a message of his own. In red, green, black, and brown, he wrote, “Stay Strong, Fight On.”
He started sketching the mural in May, right after the Supreme Court draft opinion was leaked by POLITICO that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established women’s rights to abortion access, would be overturned.
“We’ve all been through a lot the last couple of years and when that happened, I just felt so tired,” said Adams as he let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m tired of feeling so pessimistic. And then I thought about my own daughters.”
Adams and his wife Rachel Gloria Adams, who is also a visual artist, have two daughters who are 2 and 5 years old. They came to Providence with their dad and played hopscotch next to the mural.
“They will be two Black women and I have to prepare — on so many fronts — (for) the many obstacles they will have to face in this world,” said Adams. “I wanted to make a statement. To stay strong, to fight on, to be persistent.”
But staying strong doesn’t have to be a political statement for viewers, he said.
“Sometimes we need to stay strong and keep fighting to take care of ourselves, to be prepared, to check in mentally,” said Adams.
Next to the Wexford Innovation Center, which is a hub for tech companies and startups [and where Globe Rhode Island’s offices are located], Adams said he’s had new entrepreneurs see the mural and also resonate with its meaning in their own business.
“I love the fact that anyone can look at this message and feel connected to it somehow in their own lives,” he said.
Much of his work has similar, open-ended messages. Across New England, he’s painted murals that read, “All are welcome here,” “Do Good Work,” “I am here,” and “Use your (white) voice.”
In June 2020, after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Adams said he spent six hours working on a portrait of Floyd.
“I kept looking into this man’s eyes — for six hours — while I painted him and kept thinking of his young daughter,” said Adams. “It was heavy, it was intense, but it was necessary.”
Around that same time, he painted another one of his signature “gem” murals that said “You Can’t Unsee.” He said they went hand-in-hand.
“I think the beauty of being an artist is being able to captivate people by something colorful and eye-catching that you can sneak some truth into — a truth that’s important to me or the artist working on their own piece,” he said looking up at his nearly complete mural. “Not everything has to be serious. But for me, this piece needed to be.”
“A strong woman — my mom — pushed me and supported me in the beginning stages of my art. My wife, the rock [of our household], and my young daughters, push me everyday,” said Adams. “For those who question why I spread political messages in my art or tell me to ‘stay in my own lane,’ I just tell them that I’m always going to be an active participant in my community and the world around me. And as a Black man, I don’t have the luxury of not participating.”