History in Color by Nora Rabins

“From 2012 to 2013 Rhode Island Artist, Nora Rabins, with help from a grant from Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, researched and created colorful sails that would eventually be hoisted onto the 17th century Sherman Windmill at Newport Restoration Foundation’s Prescott Farm in Portsmouth Rhode Island. On May 19th 2013 with the public’s help, the beautifully painted sails were put in place onto the windmill which gave the mill the ability to run on wind power and grind corn for the first time since 1987.”

-History in Color Exhibit 2014


Nora Rabins was at the Meeting House in Tiverton Four Corners this past weekend for the opening of an exhibit showcasing the once aerial sails she conceptualized over year ago. The vibrant and graphic color blocks visually inspired by the Sherman Windmill represent, not only a dedicated artistic pursuit, but a an even longer history of a close relationship between man and machine.

The story of how the project came to be is a combination of serendipity, music, trial, error, hard work, and enthusiastic community support.

A background in furniture design and a M.F.A from RISD propelled this young artist into a world of big ideas, structures, materials, and space; some just as fantastical as the windmills she would soon adopt. “You have a vision that confronts reality. I knew this project was about not giving up,” she says.

Nora responded to an ad by the Newport Restoration Foundation looking for someone to make a sign for an upcoming exhibit. Being a “maker,” Nora, along with the help of a colleague, jumped into the project with eager eyes and able hands. That’s when she discovered the NRF’s windmill.  “It was already its own thing. It had history. It was beautiful.” One thing led to another and pretty soon Nora had secured a residency with the NRF and had rigged up a loom inside the windmill that played music by stepping on the petals. No small feat.

Weaving song and history together soon gave rise to a new idea: Nora wanted to reenact the past in the present; she wanted to make this windmill turn. And so began Nora’s yearlong love affair with windmills. Her research went deep into their history and opened a world of colorful revelations about people past and present. “I fell in love with the  ‘other’ Rhode Island,” she said referring to the more southern, “self-sustaining” cultures like Newport and Portsmouth.

Even more remarkable for Nora was the idea that windmills were a real means of communication. Wars, celebrations, messages, were all communicated through the turning of the mill.  The disparity between modern technologies and the windmills was eye-opening, sobering, and enough to make Nora get out her paints.

Using airbrush paint, giant stencils, and sail cloth, Nora mimicked a windmill in the stencil design with the hopes they would bring to life the windmill that had been dormant since 1987. “We imagine the past was in black and white, but it was equally colorful as it is now,” she said of her choice to use bright yellows and blues for the design. “I wanted it to be modern. I didn’t want to just tell my story, it’s about real life.”

Nora overcame small bumps in the design process propelling her own artistic vision to one of maturity and perseverance, and an extra dose of artistic integrity. The windmill project received a lot of press and Nora did not shy away from the limelight, even through her most challenging days. “I wanted people to see the process. This is a problem to solve.”

Out of this display of history and dedication came a blossoming of connection and community support that Nora never saw coming, but nonetheless impacted her profoundly. Making friends was just the start; she now has invitations to build sails for real sail boats, and perhaps do an encore of the beautifully surreal windmill exhibit at Prescott Hall.

“Windmills were a gathering place. They brought people together,” she says. It is only fitting that the sails should now make their appearance in Tiverton’s The Meeting House. The cloth sails are hung magnificently inside the aptly named meeting place for an exhibit that Nora hopes will continue to unite people, communities, history, and time. “


We invite you to come gather for two more inspiring events featuring the work of Nora Rabins:

Wednesday March 5th 3 documentary short films reveal the process of Nora’s work; she will be present to answer questions.

Sunday March 9th celebrate the closing of the exhibit with a demonstration by Nora.

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