Keys to the underground

A primer on Providence's vibrant arts community
August 30, 2006 5:10:04 PM

ON POINT The granddaddy of the Providence arts scene, AS220 steadily replenishes itself with fresh energy and ideas.
In an attempt to define the Providence aesthetic, one local artist aptly offered these words: “absurd, anti-establishment, punk, fantastical, collective, animistic, mythological, found, trash.”

Small in size, Rhode Island’s capital is home to a vibrant and diverse arts underground that ranges from Big Nazo’s larger-than-life puppetry to fine and unusual works of furniture by the likes of Annie Adams, from the Providence Mandolin Orchestra to raucous noise bands like Mindflayer, from street happenings by the PIPS crew to the dramatic offerings of any number of theater groups. One strong connection between Providence artists is the spirit of community — which, given the city’s diminutive size, is easily ascertainable.

For those in the know outside of Rhode Island, the Providence underground is largely associated with the community of prolific artists and musicians who started living on the West Side in the mid-’90s. Some of these folks occupied spaces like Fort Thunder, a since-demolished 19th-century mill, which resonates as a lost Valhalla of the recent past.

Razed in 2001 to make way for a strip mall, the Fort was decorated cap-a-pie with colorful plastic toys, trash, stuffed animals, instrument guts, old computer game systems, and innumerable other errata. It was, in a sense, an alternate universe, fostering costumed and masked performances by such in-house noise bands as Lightning Bolt, Mindflayer, and Forcefield (which later received national attention at the Whitney Biennial), among others. Out of Fort Thunder came a variety of print media, including comics (in the form of Paper Rodeo, a compendium of different comic artists) and ubiquitous silk-screened posters (employing cartoon-like beasts and coded font to advertise underground music shows), setting a trend for poster art that continues to flourish.

The amorphous and diverse underground art and music scene carries on, as have their peers before them, despite the challenges posed by displacement and rising real estate prices. It operates both in the public’s eye, as art spaces, galleries, Web sites, and such, and in sub rosa venues that dot the city. The following is an idiot’s guide to some of the accessible spaces where Providence locals are making and seeking great art.

AS220 | 115 Empire Street, Providence | 401.831.9327 |
AS220 is a true champion of the arts in Rhode Island. The Providence nonprofit hosts visual art shows in its four galleries, constant musical performances — of genres encompassing jazz, punk, and noise — on its newly renovated stage, and is home to an affordable residency program with 19 live/work studios. It also offers a community darkroom and group-drawing classes, empowers youth through the affiliated Broad Street Studio, and holds provocative discussions through public policy forums and the fall discussion series known as Action Speaks!

Started in 1985 by a group of artists, AS220 continues its historic mission: to provide an uncensored and unjuried space in which local artists show their work, whatever the medium. AS220 continues to grow and expand, hosting the recent daylong Foo Fest block party on Empire Street, and moving forward with plans for a new affordable residential program at the former Dreyfus Hotel on Washington Street in Providence. For further proof of fresh energy, just consider AS220’s addition of the popular TAQUERIA PACIFICA, home to some of the best Mexi-Cali food in town. On top of all this, AS220’s bartenders make a delicious mojito.

Firehouse 13 | 41 Central Street, Providence | 401.270.1801 |
Firehouse 13, a relatively new kid on the block, takes seriously its mission to provide the experimental possibilities of collective space that helped put the Providence creative scene on the national map. Having just opened its doors to the public in June, the Firehouse rents its gallery/performance space on a monthly basis, and will host a different exhibition/performance/environment each month, in addition to seven month-by-month residents. As a for-profit organization, it takes just a 20 percent commission on art sales, a figure well below the commercial norm. Balancing community-minded programming with entrepreneurial possibility, the Firehouse is creating an opportunity for visual artists, performance artists, and musicians to take over its first floor, remaking the 2000-square-feet into anything imaginable.

The Dead Cat Gallery | 669 Elmwood Avenue, Providence | 401.206.6608
Taking cues from organizations like AS220 and the Steel Yard, the Dead Cat Gallery is beginning to offer classes in ceramics, music, photography, painting, and various other disciplines. Founded in October of 2005, this 5000-square-foot-space hosts a monthly gallery opening combining local art and local music. Legend has it that gallery founder Ben Burbank came upon a petrified cat, preserved by salt air, in a run-down house on Block Island. After epoxying the ill-fated feline to a piece of steel, he set back to Providence with a new mission — to create a community-based arts venue. In addition to the gallery, the Dead Cat folks record music, help to organize a charity baseball league, and run an environmentally friendly construction company, focusing on green roof technology.

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