Work of local sculptor finds permanent home at State House
Thomas Wilson Dorr was a hero in the history of Rhode Island. The namesake of the so-called Dorr Rebellion, he led the fight for expanded voting rights, and, as a result, faced a sentence of life in prison.
Now a statue of Dorr, created by Jamestown sculptor Joe Avarista, has found a permanent home at the State House in Providence.
Suffrage in 1842 was defined by a colonial charter that dated back to 1663, and it limited voting to white men over the age of 21 who owned at least $134 in real estate. Rhode Island voters elected two governors that year: Samuel Ward King and Dorr. Ward was elected based on the terms of the charter, and Dorr was elected under a people’s constitution that expanded voting rights to more Rhode Islanders.
King would not step down, and armed skirmishes resulted. Eventually Dorr was arrested, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1844. Fortunately for Dorr, an act of general amnesty was passed and he was released after serving just one year. He fell ill shortly after and died in 1854.
In the meantime, the people of Rhode Island voted for a new constitution that abolished the royal charter and expanded the right to vote. Dorr’s concepts became part of state law more and more over the years.
Avarista, the sculptor who carved Dorr’s likeness, grew up on Federal Hill in Providence. His family moved to Johnston when he was 12, and Avarista graduated from the town’s public high school before attending Johnson & Wales University.
After a year at JWU, Avarista transferred to the Art Institute of Boston to study advertising and photography. He moved to California following graduation, hoping to find work in the advertising industry.
After having no success out west, Avarista returned to the Ocean State and began working in the jewelry business. He always had an interest in wood carving, and began pursuing the art more diligently while living in North Scituate.
Eventually Avarista began a nine-year apprenticeship with a wood carver. He built cigar-store Indians, post-and-beam houses and period furniture. He also became more proficient in photography. After leaving the apprenticeship, Avarista spent some time making models in the ceramics industry.
A turning point for Avarista came when he got a commission to create a box for a rare pen collection. He created a box from wood that had the appearance of a knitted sweater. It turned out to be the beginning of Avarista’s creation of clothing facsimiles that were carved from wood and hung on walls as art pieces.
“I started making leather jackets and hanging clothing,” he said.
The sweater box that Avarista created for the pens gave him entree into the gift industry. He continues to create giftware, which he calls “functional art,” under the name Giuseppe. Avarista at the same time continued his work in the fine arts, creating life-sized figures. His wooden clothing sculptures, in addition to jackets that resemble fabrics like denim and leather, include his take on ballets slippers and even underwear.
“It was interesting having a dual career,” Avarista said. “It all pertained to clothing. My mom was a person who loved clothing, and that’s where I got the clothes idea to start with.”
Patrick Conley is a prominent real-estate developer and historian who believes that Dorr is second only to Roger Williams when it comes to historical figures in Rhode Island. Several years ago, Conley commissioned Avarista to create a sculpture of Dorr that would be placed in the atrium of the proposed Heritage Harbor Museum that was to be built in Providence.
Avarista began to work on his commission. It began with a 1,000-pound block of wood. He documented his creation on film at every step of the way.
“Dorr was a man of determination, and he was on the move all the time,” he said. “So I decided to design the sculpture where the man is moving. I went to New York where I built a life-sized mannequin based on what Dorr looked like and what he wore. This way I did not have to hire a model.”
The museum project was slow to get off the ground. The sculpture and accompanying film took a year to complete. (The sevenminute time-lapse film of Avarista’s creation of the Dorr sculpture, which is being updated to include the unveiling, can be seen at Ava ristaStudios.com.)
When it was finished, the Dorr statue was placed in a club that Conley had created to present history lectures. There it awaited its permanent home. The museum never materialized, however, and eventually Avarista’s sculpture was crated up and put in storage.
“I didn’t hear anything about it for a long time,” he said.
This winter, Avarista had just returned to Jamestown from a trip to California when he got a call from Conley. He was told a deal had been struck with the state to give the Dorr sculpture a permanent home in front of the Senate chamber at the State House.
“I was very excited because it was an opportunity for people to see it. I had made this great piece, but it was hidden.”
The unveiling of the statue was set for the end of the first day of the current legislative session on Jan. 7. The unveiling took place when both chambers of the legislature adjourned for the day. In addition to Avarista and Conley, Gov. Lincoln Chafee was on hand.
“It’s quite an honor for me to have one of my pieces have a permanent place in the State House,” Avarista said. “This has personal meaning because it’s the history of our state. I’ve been a Rhode Islander for my entire life.”