Potato Head sculptures in Rhode Island (ranked)

Published Thursday, June 23 2022 at 11:36 pm
Potato Head sculptures in Rhode Island (ranked)
Betty the Learned Elephant Potato Head sculpture in Glocester. All pics by Castro.

The spuds were once legion. And now? Only ten remain on public view.

In 1999, the state of Rhode Island spearheaded a tourism campaign. Towns could sponsor the creation of a Potato Head. They had the cooperation of trademark owner Hasbro, of course. And it proved to be a fruitful collaboration when 47 Potato Heads were sculpted and displayed across Rhode Island.

After the campaign ended, many of the sculptures were sold to private owners or stored away. But there are still a few available on public view. As recently as April 2022, a story ran on WJAR, NBC’s Providence affiliate, about two retired women and their hunt for the remaining taters.

So I took the same pilgrimage. Almost all of the potatoes looked better in person than they do in pictures. That said, I still tried to take some nice photos to emphasize their appeal. When ranking the potatoes, I took into account visual impact, inventiveness, quality of craft, and how on- or off-model they were to the generic Potato Head toy. That last attribute proved a valuable point of subversion as well. Each potato had some charm, and the ranking process was trickier than expected.

10. Uncle Sam - Various spots in Bristol

This is one of the harder Potato Heads to locate, since it tends to get towed around Bristol in a cart, especially during Fourth of July season. And yet the fit and vibe are more Evel Knievel than Uncle Sam. The eyes are accurate, but the overall shape feels off-model. More like an egg, really. I will note this one seems to be kept in the nicest condition overall, probably cuz it’s still being used the most for touristy purposes.

9. Day-O-Lite - Chestnut Street, Warwick

This one is supposed to light up at night, but a return visit after dusk couldn’t confirm this. The overall potato form is white and nondescript. Its surroundings are likewise industrial and vague, and a little elbow grease on the surface could have elevated this one above the dirt. Kind of disappointing. Functioning lights could have been transformative. Maybe they get turned on later at night; I dunno. You might have better luck seeing it from the highway: You can spot it going north on I-95, right right before exit 15.

8. Dunkin Potato - Metacom Avenue, Warren

OK, he's not normally bathed in shadow like this

It’s obvious this one’s had some work done. I remember there being an interlocking ring of circles painted across his face. On close inspection you can see the remnants of this (thankfully removed) pattern. Currently, this clean-shaven spud sports a buzzcut, visor, Dunkin-colored sneakers, and a spray painted donut. His smile is cute if frighteningly large, with a tonsil dangling at the back. From the roadside, he feels less impressive.

7. Mr. Potato Head  - Hasbro Inc. headquarters, Pawtucket

A sleek and classic interpretation of Mr. Potato Head, complete with Steve Harvey mustache. Since he’s right outside Hasbro’s offices the fabrication is expert. Design wise, Mr. Potato Head offers no surprises. His femme neighbor (see below) is certainly the more interesting of the pair.

6. Bellhop - Clements Marketplace, Portsmouth

A nicely painted, very on-model Potato Head with a smart, hospitality-industry fit. But here’s the scandalous part: older photos of this potato head show a hat sans Clements’ logo. So it was obviously added on after the fact. Maybe it’s silly to expect that literal advertisements for a Hasbro toy would be free from additional peddling. But the double branding here commits some kind of sacrilege against an otherwise handsome potato form.

5. Fireman - Lake Mishnock Fire Co., West Greenwich

This one has a lovely maniacal energy. He’s on-model but with a touch of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I really feel this guy has a burning desire to extinguish any fire that gets in his way. His pickaxe is nicely sculpted, and it’s amusing to see this instrument of violence brandished by such an unhinged looking potato. Friendly, well-made, and campy. It too has acquired a patina of schmutz that could use some cleaning.

4. Betty the Learned Elephant - Behind the town hall, Glocester

This one commemorates a bizarre, violent incident that happened nearly two centuries ago. The first two elephants ever brought over to the United States were apparently murdered; religious fanaticism at the time marked them as distractions from the Lord’s Day. So the “learned elephant” this potato references was Betty, the second elephant ever imported stateside from India. Betty was shot in Chepachet one morning in 1826, and has since been reincarnated next to an old schoolhouse. I don’t know how you’d even stumble upon this bit of history without this sculpture’s help.

The sculpture is one of the sturdiest looking, consisting of an opaque solid gray. The trunk is a little weird, while the lashes are cute and draggy. A tail in the back completes the pachyderm illusion. Judging by older pictures online, and according to the WJAR article, this elephant was restored somewhat recently. The most dirt it entertains is around the eyes. Sleep crust, I suppose.

3. Mrs. Potato Head - Across from Mr. Potato at Hasbro

This gal is rarely mentioned or pictured on any of the other potato lists. I don’t know why. Stationed across from Mr. Potato Head, she looks practically iconic. A lustrous, plastic potato skin, adorned with big lips, lashes, a purse and shoes, a visor to keep the sun out…she is accessorized to the nines. She’s definitely GMO, this shiny-unto-heaven potato. But her beauty and strength are indisputable.

2. Grape potato - Clements’ Marketplace, Portsmouth

The idea of a grape-potato hybrid feels inherently off. Like mixing vodka with wine into something undrinkable. But this is pretty much the only potato to take full advantage of the sculptural surface as a ground for painting. A trompe l’oeil style approximates a wooden bucket full of grapes, while the upper torso is painted as clouds and sky. Vines wrap up to the wrist. Juice spills over the edges of the bucket, sticky and fresh. The paint is still nicely saturated, with an unexpected palette of blue, purple and green. Very Magritte meets roadside attraction. Like many of its starchy comrades, this alcoholic(?) tater could use a wet rag over its surface.

1. Mosaic Mrs. Potato Head - Westerly State Airport

The entire experience of visiting this Potato is lightly surreal. You walk into a quiet, tiny airport in an obscure corner of the state, where you’ll find the westernmost Potato Head installed behind the lobby. She’s impressively big, with a wide clay surface that showcases an attention to detail: Lips made from the wine red patterning of fine China. Reflective shards to make a pair of sunglasses. She embodies kitschy grandma fashion circa 1997, with a bikini thrown in for good measure. She radiates diva energy and wakes up this sleepy airport.

A sign taped to her waving hand tells visitors not to touch. It’s probably cuz there are a few tiles chipped off, piled on the ground near her sandals. The decay only adds to her beauty. This is the grand dame of Rhode Island’s Potato Heads.

[30 days of June: No. 23/30]