City artist will use her camera to build community

City artist will use her camera to build community

WOONSOCKET – Ellie Brown is a photographer, a playwright, an experienced teacher, and the founder of a company that helped full-time artists survive in today’s economy.

She’s worked as a college professor and lecturer in several states over the past 16 years – she even had a stint as a visiting professor in South Korea – and has received dozens of grants and awards. Her work has been featured in numerous newspapers and national magazines, and her list of past solo and group exhibitions is too long to begin to name.

Now, she lives just off Sayles Street in Woonsocket, and is working to help the local community through both education and art.

Brown came to Woonsocket through NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley’s Community Builders In Residence program, a project that aims to lure extraordinary individuals to the area with offers of housing and jobs working with city youth. CBIRs work 10-16 hours a week at city schools, with local organizations and in after-school programs, and in turn receive lodging.

Brown joined the community in August of 2015, moving to the organization’s C3 Center.

The move made sense for Brown, who works primarily with documentary and cultural anthropology. The artist wanted to move closer to her father, who lives in Massachusetts and is currently suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, she’s documenting his struggles.

Half a dozen equally valued experts in their field already called the place home. They include a renowned chef, a world-class musician and a college access expert, to name a few, all working as youth advocates in an city that could undeniably use the boost.

“We have some really amazing people that live there,” said Margaux Morisseau, director of community engagement for NWBRV. “The Community Builder in Residence program is a very innovative model for delivering education services to the community.”

Brown has been working as a substitute in the Woonsocket Education system, but it is her most recent project that might best highlight the organization’s aim in bringing such creative and motivated individuals to the community.

Brown has received a grant from Rhode Island State Council on the Arts to launch “Faces of Woonsocket,” an art project that aims to showcase the city’s diversity.

“One of the ways I know how to build a community is through arts,” said Brown, who added that while her focus is photography, she also worked on a similar mural project in Philadelphia.

“Her project is an example of how our community builders are involved in community work,” said Morisseau. “That’s why we call them community builders in residence instead of teachers: we really want them to be involved in these types of projects.”

Brown is looking for models to participate in the public art project, and will be photographing residents throughout February and March. The artist aims to photograph 100 diverse city residents, and the resulting black and white portraits will be hung in three sites in March: on Cass Avenue across from the high school, in a parking lot on North Main Street and along East School Street.

“The models will sit for me so I can capture something real in their personality,” said Brown. “The photos will also include the number of years or months people have lived here and possibly a word or two about how they feel about the town, written on their hands.”

The project is inspired by a similar effort by French street artist “JR” titled “Inside Out,” which aims to transform messages of personal identity into art through portraits.

“I’m sort of using that as a model for what I want to do,” said Brown.

The pictures will become large scale photocopies, and will be wheat-pasted on walls with paper glue in a grid on walks designated by the City Council and the mayor. Sizes will vary according to the size of the wall.

“They will go up in April and stay through the end of autumn, or until they begin to look shabby – whichever comes first,” Brown said.

The individual artist grant from RISCA will help to complete the work.

“They always look favorably upon grants that are paired with community organizations and nonprofits,” Brown said of the state group.

Photography will take place at the C3 Center at 120 Northeast St., from 1 to 4 p.m., on Saturdays, Feb. 20 and 27, and March 5; at Woonsocket Public Library, 303 Clinton St., on Mondays, Feb. 1 and 8, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and at the NeighborWorks office, 719 Front St., on Monday, Feb. 22, from 9 to 11 a.m.

Interested residents can email Brown at ebrown@youthrap.org. To view some of Brown’s past work visit elliebrown.com.

Editor's note: The above article has been edited to correctly reflect the country in which Brown served as a visiting professor. The original article stated that it was North Korea.