Locally Made

RISD Museum Opens Up a World Of Local Art

by John White

published September 18, 2013

A FULL-SIZE, WOODEN, ONE-ROOM house currently sits in the RISD Museum. The house, called One Room, is part of the museum’s show “Locally Made,” which celebrates local artists and their work. The structure has moveable walls and furniture, and over the course of the nearly four-month-long show, over 250 local artists have taken over the house as their temporary studio, stage, and home. The Independent caught up with a few artists involved in the show in order to get a grasp on what it means to be a local artist in Providence.

     People spill out of the front of 186 Carpenter in Federal Hill onto the roughly triangular paved area in front of the building formed by its oblique orientation with the street. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but no one is particularly friendly. It’s a gallery opening, and inside, there is art on three of the square room’s walls. Against the fourth is food and alcohol and more people. There is dull but heavy music playing overhead. Somewhere in the midst is Jori Ketten B’02, who curated a week of One Room artists and who co-founded and curates 186 Carpenter.
     The show is called “Dry Socket,” and it features work by printmakers Alison Nitkiewicz and Julia Moses, who are recent RISD graduates. The left wall is dominated by a large installation of dark thread that is strung maybe half an inch off of the wall in precise lines that form something like an archway. On the right wall are four silkscreen works, all of which are black and white except for one that has a little bit of reddish pink. Two of them look like kaleidoscopic Rorschach inkblots, and another one has sharp lines reminiscent of the thread on the opposite wall. Finally, on the back wall from floor to ceiling are vibrant, geometric silkscreened patterns on paperboard. They simultaneously look like both scary bugs and beautiful gemstones.
     Back out front, someone points out Ketten. She is 33 and has dark hair with blonde highlights. She wears almost all black. Ketten started renting 186 Carpenter with three friends in early 2011. “We just started showing work of our friends’ that we were drawn to,” Ketten explains. The RISD Museum approached Ketten to curate a week of One Room programming. “The RISD Museum let me choose whatever artists I wanted to. Sometimes they’d say, ‘Oh, someone already chose this person,’ and sometimes they’d be excited because I thought of someone they’d never heard of. I chose almost exclusively sound artists, though, because I love when artists create whole little worlds or environments,” she says, motioning toward the gallery. “I liked when the artists chose to close the house.” She smiles. “My week was titled ‘Inside Voices.’”
     People swoop in to say hi to Ketten, to congratulate her on a great show. “There’s something nice about being kind of underground,” she says of 186 Carpenter. Before there is time to ask her to expand on the thought, a car pulls up and the driver asks what’s going on. “A gallery opening!” someone shouts. When the driver asks if it will be going on for a while, Ketten replies, “Yeah, ‘til nine!” The driver grins and, as he pulls away, says, “Great! We’ll be back with some Coors!”


     Artist holly ewald says that intuition brought her to Rhode Island. “I was driving through the area with my two sons. We weren’t even looking into moving away from New York, but then we saw a house in Pawtuxet Village that was for sale. And the lilacs in front were in bloom. We’ve lived there ever since.” Ewald, now in her late 50s, has lived in that house for 16 years.
     Ewald is in the midst of her “Office Hours” at One Room, and the structure is opened up and bursting with paraphernalia related to her work with Mashapaug Pond, the largest natural freshwater lake in Providence. In 2007, Ewald was approached by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts on behalf of the state’s Health Department to produce user-friendly signs warning visitors to the pond not to swim in it or eat its fish due to the severity of its pollution from nearby industrial parks. The job ultimately led Ewald to found the Urban Pond Procession (UPP) in 2008, which celebrates and raises local awareness of the pond through an annual parade complete with intricate costumes, musical performances, and oral history initiatives. 
     Each year the parade has gotten larger, and the One Room structure is decorated with an overabundance of testaments to all of the work that Ewald and the UPP do. Colorful costumes are hung from one wall, a large projector shows image after image of UPP’s parades and community involvement, and among it all moves Ewald, who is excited to meet each of the many people who keep entering the space. “Isn’t it so welcoming, with the smell of the wood?” she asks a newcomer as she points to the schoolhouse walls around her. Ewald is working on a series of ice boats that she designed. The boats consist of a base of ice that Ewald freezes in a sculptural mold that she made and, atop the ice, a translucent paper hull that is held up by sticks and that permits the glow of beeswax candles placed inside to be seen. On September 21, from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM, she is inviting the public to celebrate the arrival of fall at Mashapaug, where she will launch the boats.
     “This is the first studio-like work that I’m doing with Mashapaug,” Ewald says. “This One Room set-up is funny because it brings together the more intimate ‘studio me’ with the active side of me that the community sees.” She turns to touch a suspended artwork of rock and wood and net that hangs behind her. “Works like this and my studio practice are important, but I need to be out in the community, connecting. I’m always trying to find the balance between the two. But it’s ultimately all about telling stories.” And then she’s off telling someone else Mashapaug’s story. As she cradles a mold for the boats’ ice base that a man has asked about, she says, “I’m not really a sculptor, but I needed to sculpt in order to achieve this vision. So I figured it out.”

     Riding in a car with Ruth Dealy is the best way to learn about Providence. “You know that’s not a pineapple, right?” she says of Federal Hill’s welcome arch. “It’s a pignoli nut. Please remember that; it’s very important to me.” Dealy has lived in Providence for over 40 years, ever since she got her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Painting from RISD in the ’70s, and one of her paintings is on display as part of “Locally Made.” “I didn’t even know that painting’s in the show. I hate it,” Dealy laughs.
     The car ascends a steep street. Rundown buildings line both sides. “This is the Valley,” Dealy says. “I love it here.” The car pulls up in front of a three-story, symmetrical brick building across from a park that is surrounded by small homes. “About 14 artists have studios here,” Dealy explains. Inside are wide, clean hallways with heavy double doors and chalkboards that are remnants from when the building was a schoolhouse. Dealy’s studio itself is on the second floor and overlooks the park across the street. It has soaring ceilings and is the perfect image of a painter’s studio: a serene, lightfilled space with more paint on the room’s surfaces than on the many canvases that lean against three of the four walls. On one of the walls is a cork board with mementos attached to it, including a cut-out obituary from 2011 of a friend and colleague who lived in Providence all of her life as well as photos from Dealy’s RISD days.
     Dealy begins pulling canvases out. They’re all largescale self-portraits. “I use self-portraiture like Monet used Impressionism. I like to see how light and time change the self.” The faces staring out of the paintings all look like completely different people. They all, though, contain Dealy’s aggressive brushstrokes. Thickly-applied, bold strokes of vibrant colors animate her many abstracted, almost grotesque, giant faces. “This one I painted after I’d gone gradually blind,” Dealy says, pulling out a self-portrait that has more unpainted canvas poking through it than do any of the others yet is somehow the most vivid. “I felt around it with my hands. Now that I have sight in one eye back, I never want to go to that place again. But this is one of my best. In art, every disadvantage is an advantage.” She pauses. “It was helpful to go blind. It’s been helpful to age.”
     Later, sitting down, Dealy says, “I stay in Providence because time is slow here. Providence is forgiving. There’s time to look at yourself. I think the biggest problem Rhode Island artists have is chips on their shoulders. They think they would’ve done better elsewhere. Sure, nothing’s really happening here for me, which can be really frustrating, but it’s wonderful for painting.” She peels a clementine. “And the sense of community here is really so strong. I don’t know where I fit into it, though. I’d have to ask someone else.” Putting on a thick Rhode Island accent, she says, “They’d probably just say that I’m fun at parties.”

“Locally Made” is on view at the RISD Museum until November 3. To see a calendar of One Room events, visit calendar.

Intuition brought JOHN WHITE B’14 to Rhode Island.