Reflections on RISD and Providence – The Good, The Sort of Bad, and The Beautiful

View of the Capitol from College Hill

A few weeks ago, a young man from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) called me with a pitch about giving money to fund scholarships. He identified himself as a sophomore printmaking major and we had quite a nice chat. Unfortunately, I could not commit to giving anything to this worthy cause, due to my current financial circumstances. His call gave me the kick in the rear end to finally write this article – one that has been ruminating in the recesses of my brain for some time. In essence, I have come full circle since RISD and a brief explanation of how I got from there to here and back is required.

I have exhibited my fine art over the years, but after a divorce in 1995, I found myself pretty much responsible for raising a then 7-year-old as a single mother. While I followed a career path in the non-profit sector that I did not anticipate, I discovered that it was indeed a good fit, in lieu of making a living from my fine art. This 18-year ride took me from a communications department administrative assistant and managing editor of newsletters – to national media relations director – to director of communications at a prestigious international medical association.

As corny as it sounds, gray clouds can have silver linings. Losing my full time job at the medical association led to a Renaissance in my art career. I have exhibited my work in nearly 30 shows since January 2012. Sure, my freelance writing gigs don’t pay much at present, so I can no longer enjoy many of the luxuries that a high-paying position afforded me. I have periodically been without health insurance, and there were times of great angst, especially in the beginning. I still have insomnia, but it is usually caused by my mind bursting with creative thoughts for my next piece of art or article for my blog, rather than anxiety caused by that high-stress job. This time around, I have the wisdom of age, experience, and greatly honed artistic skills that RISD laid the foundation for oh so many years ago.

Manhattan Debris - Lower East Side

Dedication

This article is dedicated to Francesca Woodman (Class of 1979) and other creative souls who graduated with me in 1980 who tragically died too young. Among those lost are friends and RISD kids I personally knew: Mimian Wu, Susan Tharp, Kevin Dorrian, and John Orth.

THE GOOD

The Best Art School on Earth!

From the time I was 11-years-old, I knew I wanted to go to RISD. When I got accepted, I was over the moon with excitement. I was really naïve when I arrived with my mom in Providence that late summer day in 1976. I had been a bit of a geek in high school – in fact, I detested high school. As a very sensitive and artistic person, I was self-conscious and painfully aware of the superior attitude and oft-obnoxious behavior of the “cool” kids. During the first week at RISD, there was the trip to the Tillinghast Farm and a get together on the terrace of Homer Nickerson. For the first time in my school life, I was in my milieu and socially at ease. Handsome, interesting boys were paying attention to me – and most of them were straight, or at least thought they were at that point in time.

Freshman Year Juggling

My first roommate Linda dropped out after just two weeks, so I had an open bed the rest of first semester that a few strangers stayed in. Second semester, a wonderful girl from Concord, N.H. moved in and we became fast friends. Katherine Kirsch was from a big family with eight siblings and I went up to visit her in Concord one glorious fall day the following year. Sadly, Katherine had to drop out of RISD, and although we stayed in touch for a year or so, I don’t know what became of her. I did find an article on her dad, who recently sold his family pharmacy. She was the roommate I referenced in my blog about Patti Smith.

Katherine Kirsch

A Solid Foundation

Figure Drawing

Although I was in my element socially for the first time in my life, I found myself experiencing another first. Like my RISD classmates, we were all star artists growing up and “tagged” with this label in school. Figure drawing class with George Pappas quickly dispelled any thoughts I had about that moniker. My figure drawing skills were inferior to many of the kids and George never singled out my drawings during critiques – not once during the entire semester. Ron DeFelice was the star pupil – his drawing skills at this tender age were freakin’ amazing. Although he started with outlines and George mentioned that the rest of us should not emulate this style, he forgave him because his work was stunningly sophisticated. Being surrounded by all of these talented kids fueled my desire to constantly improve my technique – and there was no better art school on earth to do this than RISD.

Figure Modeling

Clay Bust

Although I was fairly good at ceramics, having immersed myself in this media in high school, clay figure modeling was definitely not my forte. A high point of this class is that I became friends with Linda Fraser and Kim Tomadjoglou, who also went on to become sculpture majors. The teacher, John Bozarth, was a sculptor who had a perennial twinkle in his eye, as evidenced in his whimsical, wonderful carvings of curvy females. John was soft-spoken and sweet, but offered very good, spot-on criticism.

Something happened in this class that I have recounted many times over the years to close friends. We had a rather homely 20ish male model with a beak-like nose, and as we were sculpting, this unfortunate male specimen got aroused and grew an appendage. I looked around the class and nobody seemed to take notice, although this situation lasted for a good 10 minutes. I added an embellishment to my clay figure and got the attention of Linda and Kim – at that point John was coming towards my side of the room and I quickly removed my handiwork. The model developed a look of ecstasy on his face but was able to come back down to reality before anything more embarrassing transpired. Although nothing like this ever occurred again, I wonder how often this happens to youngish nude male art models.

Stellar Faculty

Arnold Prince – an Influential Mentor and Friend

Stepping Out

For freshman Wintersession, I made a decision that changed my entire career path at RISD. I had considered ceramics as my major until I took a carving course with Arnold Prince. I was so taken with his Caribbean charm and teaching techniques that I changed my major to sculpture. He was not only a great teacher and incredibly talented sculptor, but we became fast friends. I consider Arnold to be my most influential mentor at RISD. My first stone carving was in limestone and was pretty awful. But my second attempt in white marble actually netted grand prize in a student sculpture contest sponsored by the Warwick Arts Foundation during my sophomore year. My piece, Stepping Out, was purchased for $200 and installed at the Warwick Public Library.

Warwick Arts Foundation

Other Terrific Teachers

  • Tom Moran – Terrifically nice professor who taught Foundry. Tom created a magical house with intricate bronze doors – which he sadly lost when he got divorced.
  • Jackie Rice – Wonderful, down-to-earth professor who taught Ceramics, my original choice as a major.
  • Hardu Keck – A soft-spoken but dynamic RISD presence for nearly 40 years – I had Hardu for second semester 2-D design and really liked his teaching style.
  • Rodney Nakamoto – The only non-jewelry design major in a jewelry as body art course my senior year, Rod was such a wonderful professor, making me feel right at home. He was wildly enthusiastic about my work, which made me less self-conscious among all those talented silversmiths. He also wrote a letter of recommendation.
  • Dan – I cannot remember his last name, but he was a grad student and quite a hoot! Great class, wonderful sense of humor, as evidenced below.

Glowing Evaluation

Liberal Arts

While my technical art skills grew by leaps and bounds at RISD, I thank my lucky stars that the liberal arts department was equally as stellar. I learned critical thinking and how to creatively craft, or rather, to caress the English language – from Mike Fink, Blossom Kirschenbaum, and the incomparable Gregor Goethals. Although I could not have predicted it back then, Gregor told me that I should consider a career in advertising/PR. When I was young, I truly thought I would be able to make a living as an artist, in one way or another, but Gregor saw something in me that oddly came to fruition 15 years later.

Eric Fischl

I should have taken greater advantage of the visiting faculty. It was not until he was nearly done with his stint at RISD, that I met with Eric Fischl, at the encouragement of the Sculpture Department Head Richards Jarden. Although he was already an established artist in NYC, it was a couple of years before Fischl catapulted to great fame and fortune. The primary reason Richards thought we should meet is because I was going to live in the Netherlands, and Fischl had lived there and had some art connections. I regret that I did not meet with him earlier in the semester – there was definitely a commonality of thought process that was very evident just in this one-hour meeting.

The RISD Refectory, Cafeteria, and Carr Haus

Al Falk

A school cafeteria with great food – what an anomaly! While my high school friends were suffering through bad food at universities and gaining weight, I was enjoying the highly creative, delectable cuisine prepared under the able supervision of Al Falk. Thanks to the hills and all the walking, I was able to eat whatever I wanted back then and not gain a pound. Much of the food was served buffet style and there were certain foods that I remember fondly. A longtime Chicago hot dog aficionado, I bemoaned the fact that I could not find a decent dog in Providence. I looked forward to Saturday lunch, when the food du jour was hot dogs, hamburgers, and French fries. There was a particular bow-tie pastry that was sublime – flaky dough with light raspberry filling. And long before vegetarian food was fashionable, Al made a delicious vegetarian burger out of eggplant that tasted just like beef.

When I was at RISD, an old-school cafeteria was located on the lower level of a building on Benefit Street – I cannot find any reference to this online. The cook there was a total curmudgeon, but I loved the toasted bagels slathered with butter. It was here, during the last weeks of my senior year, that Gregor told me that I should seriously consider a career in the advertising/PR field.

Carr Haus

Carr Haus was a great place to meet friends and grab a delicious large cookie, corn or bran muffin – the latter were moist and filling. Carr Haus provided a great view of people and oft-maniac drivers racing up the steep hill – and still does. It was rumored that David Byrne was inspired to pen the 1974 song Psycho Killer during his brief year at RISD, while sitting in Carr Haus watching those drivers. This is really far-fetched and untrue, but RISD students had vivid imaginations and back then, the group Talking Heads was particularly aligned with RISD. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz met at RISD in the early 1970s, but Byrne dropped out after only a year.

Downtown Providence

Downtown Providence 1977

Downtown Providence 1979

Fresh Roasted Peanuts

I loved Downtown Providence and had a field day taking pictures. There were an abundance of diners and luncheonettes that looked like they were frozen in time – evoking a bygone era. While it was a bit seedy and depressed, I found plenty of inspiration here, as well as in Olneyville. Among my favorite haunts:

  • A Peanut Shop – A tiny shop that I adored – you could smell the roasted peanuts from afar and they also had delicious spearmint leaf candies. I loved this shop so much that I photographed it multiple times and shot my first Super 8 film outside the shop.
  • The Outlet – Sadly this store closed for good in 1982 and the building burned down in 1986. Delicious bakery goods and a lot of great bargains.
  • The Arcade – A beautiful, circa 1828 building and the first enclosed shopping mall in the U.S. My favorite place was an upscale candy store – the owner gave me free candy for a class called Love in Art.
  • The Superman Building – In the 1950s, it was rumored that 111 Westminster Street served as the model for the Daily Planet building in the Superman comic book, but this is not the case.
  • Woolworth’s – Anywhere USA – it did not matter where it was located, this dime store was always a favorite haunt.
  • Adler Photo – Although I was not a photography major, I was constantly taking pictures and spent a lot of time at this terrific independent store.
  • Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel – I only went here a few times, but so nice to see that they are still crazy after all these years, as Paul Simon sang. And by the way, that song was released on October 23, 1975, soon after Lupo’s opened its doors at 377 Westminster Street on September 5, 1975. Lupo’s was forced to move in 1988, reopening in 1993 in the remodeled Peerless Department Store.
  • Met Café – Quite a hike past downtown, this little dive served up great music and fun times.
  • A little gift store on Westminster close to the Superman Building – I bought a bunch of cute, cheap watches here. You get what you pay for – that’s why the plural.

Seedy Lounge

Koerner's A Lunch

Benefit Street/Main Street

Friend's Market

  • Given my fascination with US history, I adored the wonderful colonial era houses on Benefit Street and the surrounding streets. It was nice being in a city with far older history than Chicago, albeit a far smaller one.
  • Nice to know that Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches is still in business, although back then it was just Geoff’s. This is the first place I know of that offered celery salt on sandwiches.
  • Colonial Liquors – It was quite a thing that the drinking age was 18 in Rhode Island – back then it was age 19 in Illinois. Boy did I feel like a big shot buying the cheapest beer I could find and drinking it with friends – I believe it was Narragansett.
  • Oakes on the Hill – I loved this jam-packed artist supply store housed in a historic building on Thomas Street, because I have always favored independent shops. I don’t particularly like Utrecht, although Dick Blick is better. I order online from Jerry’s Artarama, but I wasn’t aware that they have a brick and mortar store in Providence.
  • On occasion, I would walk all the way down South Main Street to Wickenden and buy Portuguese sweet bread at Friend’s Market.

The Providence Art Club

Providence Art Club

It was Linda and Kim that helped me get a job at the Providence Art Club, the second semester of freshman year. Unfortunately, both of them quit for other jobs soon after I started. The pay really sucked – minimum wage with no tips, but there were fringe benefits. Free meals came in handy after I was no longer on the RISD meal plan. It was here that I tasted Johnny Cakes for the first time – these greasy babies did not rock my boat, but a lot of the patrons adored them. The highlight of my nearly 4-year gig here was when I had the honor of serving lunch to Harry Callahan and his wife Eleanor. I was too nervous to tell him how much I admired his work, and as former RISD students of his and most everyone has said about Callahan, he was reticent and not a big talker. Two delightful older women befriended me – for the life of me I cannot remember their names – one was a RISD alumni. They even came to my senior exhibit at Woods-Gerry, which was very sweet. Another highlight was when my friend Barbara would belt out Billie Holiday songs and such while smoking in the gangway between the Providence Art Club and the neighboring building.

Outside The Providence Art Club

When I returned to Providence in October 1987 with my then-husband and 4-month-old daughter, we went to the Providence Art Club. Marie’s husband Joe was there, but she was not. Joe worked as a dishwasher, did general maintenance and was quite nice. He vaguely remembered me and called Marie, who talked to me briefly on the phone and seemed to remember me. I sat in the famous Cabaret booth where I nursed my daughter. When I visited Providence by myself in 1999, once again I stopped in at the Providence Art Club. It was an off time so nobody was eating lunch – in fact, I really did not see anyone until I went upstairs. I was aghast when I found out I was intruding on a private wake. I was very quiet and quick, scanned the gallery and headed back downstairs. It was there that I met the new, super friendly hostess and her husband – they told me that Marie and Joe had retired several years prior.

With Sammi in Providence

Thayer Street and Beyond

  • Andreas – A great Providence tradition with terrific Greek food. It was here that I tried my first shot of Ouzo and nearly choked on a taste of Retsina.
  • Spats – I never actually ate here, but I went to the Halloween contest my freshman year, dressed as a pale green washing machine. The costume was too big to fit in the door and they told me to come back at Midnight – which I idiotically did with one of the two guys from Brown that I briefly dated.
  • Rascal House – This was always a great place to grab a sandwich, slice of pie or cheesecake. Although I never saw him around Brown, my friend Barbara ran into John F. Kennedy Jr. here and talked to him. Although I never saw JFK Jr., I did have the honor of chaperoning his aunt Lee Radziwill and her daughter on a special tour during the RISD Centennial my freshman year.
  • Store 24 – Nothing special, but back then convenience stores that were actually open all night were pretty scarce.
  • The Avon Cinema – They had special nights when movies were just $1.00. One of the two guys from Brown that I was dating wanted to go see 2001 Space Odyssey. He literally had to break his piggy bank and pay with pennies – if he had asked me, I would have paid the $2.00. Instead, he embarrassed both of us by dumping out the bank at the counter and holding up the line.
  • The Meehan Ice Rink at Brown – home of the one and only RISD Nads. My boyfriend Steve played on the Nads and one night they let girlfriends play after a regular game. Instead of a puck, we used a tennis ball – it was a blast! I also clearly remember coming here during open skating with Boston’s More Than a Feeling and Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty playing in the background.

Go Nads!

THE SORT OF BAD

The low point of my stint at the Providence Art Club was an all too frequent occurrence for many women back then, prior to sexual harassment laws being enacted. We had to change in a room downstairs that was basically a food stock room – kind of creepy. Luckily, during my sophomore year, the club changed the waitress dress code from the most wretched white waitress dresses to a white blouse and black slacks. I created a conceptual art piece out of this dress after I graduated.

The Waitress

The head cook had the habit of being way too touchy-feely – grabbing me and touching my rear end on more than one occasion. There were somewhat lewd comments made by several others working in the kitchen. When I mentioned this to Marie, she brushed it off, and in fact, she was decidedly not the “hostess with the mostess” for many reasons. Marie could be a doll with a heart of gold, but she was incredibly moody, was very difficult to please – and she played favorites. Of course, I didn’t realize then that most bosses play favorites – what can I say, I was young and very idealistic.

I missed the November 10, 1979 Talking Heads concert at the Ocean State Theater because Marie had already given the night off to her favorite waitresses, none of whom had worked there as long as me. That was a bitter pill to swallow.

Freshman Year Angst

I had a guest professor for my second semester of 3-D Design – Kim Chung-up – we called him Chung-up Kim (1922-1988), a famous architect from Korea. He barely spoke English and had some rather odd habits, such as banging his forehead against your forehead as a sign of affection. For some reason, he really liked me and one day in the RISD Refectory, I ate lunch with him and David Brisson, a brilliant innovator in four-, five-, and six-dimensional theories, but a notoriously challenging professor that I had second semester for 2-D. Chung-up was singing my praises to David, telling him how talented I was and raving about a drawing I had done in his class. I was truly embarrassed by all of this, but even more so when two days later David ripped me a new one in front of the entire class during a critique. I had been warned about this trait of David’s and was particularly mortified since Chung-up had put me on a pedestal just a few days prior. My mistake was to stay after class to discuss this – I could not contain my emotions and started crying. Oh, the angst of an 18-year-old – in hindsight, this all seems so ridiculous and insignificant.

Chicago Drawing

On a side note, Chung-up asked me to give him that drawing and I did not – I found out later that he left RISD with a lot of works that he “took” from students and somebody heard that he was selling them in Korea. I put a lot of hard work into that magic marker drawing and I remember that my classmate John Gardner, an avid sailor from Bermuda, advised me on how to accurately depict the water wakes from the boat motors. This drawing was my parents’ holiday card that year – sadly the colors have faded.

The Blizzards of 1978

Traying

The winter of 1978 was horrific – a ton of snow had already blanketed much of the Midwest and New England in January, followed by ice storms. The nastiest whopper of a storm began on February 5 and subsided two days later, after dumping a record 27.6 inches of snow on Providence. The snow falling at night turned to an icy mix that left a notable layer of solid ice on every external surface, adding considerable weight to trees and power lines. At the time I was living in Prospect House, way up the hill, and I remember that it was nearly impossible to walk up Angell Street without falling down. It was during the aftermath of each of these storms that cars were banned from driving on the streets. It was after the January storm that we were sledding down Angell Street on borrowed Refectory trays and I nearly lost my life. A jerk in a VW Bug came careening down the hill out of control and my boyfriend Steve yelled at me to get off the tray. A few moments later, having just barely made it to the curb, this car hit the spot I had been in – really scary.

During the second storm, the heat went off in some of the dorms and I went to Steve’s apartment to sleep, while my poor roommate had to freeze. Well, I ended up paying quite a penance. We went to a couples-only Valentine’s party that Friday night and the punch must have been spiked, or somebody spiked my drink. I have never been so ill in my entire life, before or since. The entire room started to spin and I was hallucinating – familiar faces looked like monsters. I don’t know how I managed to walk back the half-mile to his apartment – I nearly fainted in the snow a few times and had to lean against trees. I spent the entire night in the bathroom, violently ill and my vision was blurry for a full 24 hours. On Saturday, my friends barely recognized me – I was still green and very dizzy, and did not fully recover until Monday.

The Threatened Strike of 1979

There are just a few things that stand out in my mind about the threatened strike that took place in the winter and early spring months of 1979. Foremost, was that RISD President Lee Hall was seen in a very unpopular light by most students, and this sentiment has stuck with me all these years, whether fair or not. Second, I remember being upset because the strike would delay our education and there were threats being made by the administration against students who supported the strike. And third, because I worked at the Providence Art Club, I waited on RISD Trustees who dined there. When I told Maxwell Mays about the gravity of the situation, he seemed surprised. I was actually persuaded by a bunch of students to get up in front of a packed auditorium to briefly mention that the Trustees were not being informed about how dire this situation had become. Luckily the strike was called off in April and teachers were afforded better wages and tenure terms.

Ghetto Housing

It was with great trepidation that my friends Mimian, Cathy, and I decided to live in an apartment building owned by Ben Weiss (a shame that he had the same last name as me) during our junior year. Weiss, who was actually a RISD graduate, had a very bad rep in Providence, but we were desperate and could not find anything else. We found a fourth roommate, Laura – she bailed and moved in with her boyfriend only after a couple of weeks. She continued to pay the rent, but not the utilities, and left her enormous antique bed and most everything else there, so we could not swap rooms. During a February weekend from hell, my sister and her husband decided to come up from NYC to visit. Not only did their beater car break down and we had to get it towed somewhere near Thayer Street, but the heat went out in our apartment for nearly three days. During spring break, we discovered that somebody had tried to break into the apartment, but luckily failed. And then we found out that we were being charged for the hall and outside lights – that explained the fact that our electric bill was higher than any of the other tenants.

THE BEAUTIFUL

The Nature Lab

Nature Lab Still Life

I loved the Nature Lab and while I was required to draw here as a freshman, senior year I spent time here at my leisure, photographing some of the awesome specimens. This is truly one of the treasures at RISD, made possible by the late Edna Lawrence, a longtime faculty member who founded this invaluable resource back in 1937. I think this early exposure to beautiful specimens led to my continued interest in preserving insects and animal taxidermy.

Busse Woods - June to October 2011

The RISD Museum

While small, the RISD Museum packed a big curatorial punch. As a student, I loved leisurely strolls through the museum, always enjoying the small, but stellar collection and the little shop. One of my favorite memories of the RISD Museum was a special event geared towards students – I cannot remember the exact name – perhaps Young Collectors. In any case, it was at one of these shows that I acquired my first piece of art by a master. I remember how excited I was when I bought a beautiful little Odilon Redon – a real etching, although a bookplate. It is hanging proudly in my dining room above a collection of sculptural hands.

The RISD Museum has expanded since my days there – the Daphne Farago Wing, built in 1993, exhibits contemporary art and provides the Benefit Street entrance to the Museum. In 2008, the 6,000 square foot Chace Center opened for special exhibitions with a new entrance on Main Street.

RISD Halloween Balls

I cannot imagine more creative Halloween costumes than at RISD – except perhaps at another top-notch art school. My freshman year I made a pretty lame costume – good idea, but poor execution. I crafted a life-size pale green washing machine out of cardboard. It was not a great costume, but my boyfriend Michael thought it was a kick getting inside there with me.

The real accomplishment came sophomore year, when Claudia Cubeta dressed as a marble statue and I dressed as Michelangelo. We stood there all night in one position and I “carved” my statue. I truly looked like a Renaissance man, donning a beard and a great leather cobbler apron lent to me by a fellow sculpture major, Taf Lebel Schaefer. And Claudia was completely covered in white paint and make-up – it took hours to apply and a long time to remove.

We didn’t particularly have a good time, but we certainly attracted attention – and won first prize in the competition. The prizes that year were really disappointing – we won a $4.00 bottle of Taylor champagne and a 6-pack of beer. Claudia asked for the beer and I took the champagne, which Ted Horan made me pop open immediately. He grabbed it and swigged half of it in the Refectory. I don’t like champagne much anyway – especially cheap stuff like that. The following year, they gave out far better prizes – gift certificates to Rainbow Records in downtown Providence.

Special Events

RISD had some terrific lecturers and events. The two that stand out in my mind the most are Allen Ginsberg, who spoke to a packed Auditorium, and the alternative band Human Sexual Response, who played at the Refectory. The tune Jackie Onassis was very popular back then, but like so many bands, they never really made it big and broke up in 1982. RISD continues to have wonderful lecturers – I wish I been there on October 2, 2013 to see Patti Smith!

Jewels, Jewels, Jewels

Wolf Myrow Treasures

During my first year at RISD, I discovered Gem-O-Rama, a mail order company that was in business until 2013. I would order mainly cabochons and some sterling settings – always looking forward to the little packages that would arrive at Box 282 in the RISD mailroom. Yes, I still remember that box number – in fact, memories of RISD are often more vivid than things that occurred yesterday. During my junior year, a classmate told me about a wonderful findings company called Wolf E. Myrow, in the Olneyville section of town. I wrote about this terrific place in an earlier blog. The elderly owner reluctantly let me look through the bins and fill a brown paper bag with anything I wanted for a bargain price. I think they were accustomed to eccentric art students from RISD picking through their treasures. Almost all the pieces I bought were circa 1930s to 1950s Czech and European glass beads and flat back cabochons. This place still exists, although I am certain their prices are no longer dirt-cheap.

Hunting Treasure

Providence proved to be a perfect stomping ground for feeding my love of hunting vintage treasure. I would take long walks through downtown via Westminster Street all the way to Olneyville. It is there that I discovered the Big Top Flea Market, which still exists on Manton Avenue. To this day I still regret passing up a slew of Beatles memorabilia. Back then I already had above-average knowledge about antiques and vintage and was not quite sure these were real, especially since the vendor had a dozen or so. In retrospect, I know now that these pieces were real and I could have bought them for a swan song. I also happened upon an odd vintage shop in a seedy part of town during my freshman year. I bought some cool poodle glasses for 10 cents each and would have bought out the stock, but I had walked a long way from College Hill and could not carry more. I don’t know where the heck this place was, but I am glad I got out of that neighborhood unscathed.

Pilgrim Mills and Francesca Woodman

Pilgrim Mills

Francesca Woodman in Pilgrim Mills Studio

Closer to my digs on College Hill, there was a cool vintage dry goods wholesaler where many RISD fashion students bought antique fabric and notions. Among the treasures I found were stunning small lace runners circa 1930s, Japan. I bought up a huge lot and my mom sewed them together to make a long table runner. I also bought a really cool bark cloth bed spread, circa 1940s. The store was run by an elderly Portuguese man and his son and was always kept dark. At the time, I did not realize that Francesca Woodman had a studio on an upper floor of the building.

Speaking of Francesca Woodman, I had forgotten about her until I saw a permanent exhibit of her work in 2007 at the Tate Modern in London. When she took her life on January 19, 1981, I was living in the Netherlands and news of RISD was not on my radar.  Looking at her brilliant work, I felt wistful about how much time had gone by since RISD, and the realization that life is so fleeting. I wracked my brain trying to remember her and became totally obsessed with her work and tragically short life. I recalled walking in on a female photographer on a shoot with Charlie the model in a deserted building loft – it had to be her. Steve was a photography major in her class and many of the students threw out less than perfect prints without ripping them up - I wonder if any of these belonged to Francesca. Because I spent a good deal of time at Pilgrim Mills and occasionally set foot in the photography building, I suspect our paths crossed more than once.

Private Parts

Private Parts Flier

Private Parts was an international art show mounted in a loft space rented by the Electron Movers, Rhode Island’s earliest video artists and RISD senior Les Wisner. I recall that the loft was above Fain’s Fine Carpet & Rugs at 126 N. Main Street – an online article confirms that it was in the Wayland Building. Barnet Fain was a longtime RISD Trustee and is an avid supporter of the arts – his website is worth checking out. The call for art read: “Private parts. Any size. Any medium. Any thing. Any one. Any private.” And I still have a flier, although the verbiage is different.

Fain's

In 1978, Rhode Island passed a tough new obscenity law aimed at businesses with Mafia ties. After news of the show reached the public, the Providence police raided the gallery and confiscated much of the artwork. Police told the group it was in violation of the new obscenity law, passed only days before. Organizers of the exhibit sued the city for violating their first amendment rights. The judge ruled that the exhibit should be protected as art and ordered that the city pay for the damage caused to the confiscated work.

The show opened on May 12, 1978 and I had the opportunity to see it before the infamous raid that generated national media attention. There were some pretty explicit images – the ones that I recall the most vividly were close-ups of erect male phalluses. These were powerful and artistic, and definitely verging on Robert Mapplethorpe type imagery, which of course, caused a firestorm a decade later. I also remember that Richard Merkin displayed a few vintage soft-core pornographic photos from his own collection – these were pretty tame. I had broken up with my Steve in April and was casually dating someone else. Needless to say, I was not one of the couples who paid two bits to do naughty things inside the Polaroid booth.

Woods-Gerry Senior Show – Opposites Attract

Kim Tomadjoglou and I exhibited together for our senior exhibit. We had a good turn-out and my sister came up from NYC – this time by train and without her husband. It was the first major show that I mounted myself and it was a good learning experience. Arnold Prince helped us bring the work there in his pick-up truck, by he wasn’t available after the show was taken down and I carried the large marble torso all the way down the hill to Colonial Apartments, where I lived senior year!

The Beaches

It is a real shame that I did not get a chance to see the beaches of Rhode Island until my senior year. Sure, I went to Newport a couple of times, but I am talking about less commercial areas. The weekend before school started, Kim invited me to her family beach house near Jerusalem. By senior year, I was definitely suffering from Providenceitis – in other words, I had outgrown what this town had to offer within walking distance. For some reason, I did not have my swimsuit so borrowed Kim’s sister’s which was too big. The suit’s halter-top kept loosening up and I nearly flashed a cute surfer who suddenly appeared next to me in the water. Kim went so far out in the water lying on a surf board that I think she was halfway to Block Island – I was worried about this, but she was nonchalant about it. I fell asleep on my stomach in the sun and returned to Providence looking like a lobster.

During the spring of 1980, an older friend of mine took me in his vintage Austin Healy to other beach areas and we found a little dive that sold crab cakes. Some of these areas were quite unspoiled at the time. If memory serves me correctly, we explored the areas around South Kingston and Narragansett.

The Final Chapter

If I could impart just a few words of wisdom to any current RISD student, it would be to enjoy every moment of the ride – there will be plenty of time throughout the rest of your life to hurry. I felt that I was more than ready to graduate after four years at RISD and was a bit tired of Providence. I had very bad insomnia for 6 weeks prior to graduating. I worked my ambivalent feelings into a conceptual art piece that was not totally successful. The audio part was more powerful than the visual – but I was definitely thinking outside the box on this one.

Graduation Art

 

Graduation Slideshow 

15 Comments

Filed under Art and Culture, Human Behavior, Pop Culture, RISD, Workplace

15 Responses to Reflections on RISD and Providence – The Good, The Sort of Bad, and The Beautiful

  1. eric hammarberg

    Good article. I attended from 1978-83 (B-Arch and BFA 5 years) we shared many of the same experiences. Good memories! Thanks.

    • Betsy

      Thanks, Eric – glad that you liked the article. RISD provided a lot of special memories, indeed!

      • Betsy, Great blog and wonderful photos. I love a good stroll down memory lane. We were young, idealistic and clever!! Glad to still be in touch.
        Fondly, Linda Fraser

        • Betsy

          So glad you read the article and liked it, Linda. Yes, we were very young – it is hard to believe that so much time has gone by. I think of you often and very happy to still be in touch – on different sides of the world.

  2. William R. Smith, BFA Painting, '65

    Beautiful article. When I entered RISD I had quite a few history and art history credits that I wanted to transfer in. I had to go to an interview with an history professor who had his office at the top of Carr Haus. Entry to his office was through a large Victorian bathroom, the center of which was occupied by a huge bathtub up on four huge clawed paws.

    • Betsy

      So glad that you appreciated the article and took the time to comment. That is a really interesting story about Carr Haus – and one that is so reflective of the creative souls at RISD. So did you pursue a career in fine arts or find yourself in a similar position to me, working in a different field?

      • William R. Smith, BFA Painting, '65

        Between ’65 and late ’70 I tried to make it as a painter while keeping body and soul together working as a photographer, a draftsman and an illustrator. I started taking night courses in software and computer science. In late ’70 I got a job doing software for air force radars and tracking ships at Vandenberg AFB. This lead into a career in real time systems for radars, electronic warfare and flight simulation from which I retired in 2007 to Kalama, WA.
        Since then I have been doing digital landscape photography and showing my work at The Broadway Gallery in Longview, WA. With an art and a computer background the photography I am doing is really grist for my mill.
        For me, switching from oil painting to military computer systems was less traumatic than trying to switch from oil to acrylics.
        I found that the very powerful design concepts I absorbed at RISD have been exceedingly valuable to me in both art and computer systems.

        • Betsy

          You’ve had a very interesting career – glad that you are showing your photography. I applied for positions twice at Northrop Grumman. The first time, I saw the awesome work that the graphic designers were doing – right out of Star Wars! Ultimately, the director did not feel that my rather unique blend of artistic and communications skills quite fit their corporate image. RISD provided a remarkably balanced education – I felt that the Liberal Arts Program was equally as stellar as the Fine Arts training.

          • William R. Smith, BFA Painting, '65

            I worked at Northrop Grumman for several years because the company I worked for was subcontracted to them for a radar simulator trainer. I think you should regard their lack of appreciation for you as wonderful luck.

  3. Loved this! Thanks for taking the time for putting this together. Just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, great memoir. Glad to know your journey’s been a good one. Love the art you showed.
    Congratulations on all your success!

    • Betsy

      Good to hear from you, Madeline – and glad you enjoyed the article. Just Kids was very inspiring – Patti Smith is immensely talented. I really didn’t care that much for her music when I was at RISD, but my musical tastes have evolved. Thank you for the kind words about my work. Life is like a roller coaster, as Patti Smith said – many ups and downs. Learning to enjoy the ride isn’t always easy, but I am finally trying. I hope you are enjoying your journey.

  4. Cheryl Galler photo 74

    This is a great article. I did not appreciate RISD until it was time to go. Thanks for the memories. Cheryl

    • Betsy

      Thank you, Cheryl – I am curious what you are doing now – if you wish to share. You know I don’t think I really appreciated RISD fully when I was there. If we only had hindsight and the wisdom of age as young adults!

  5. Thanks for this article Betsy. I never attended RISD but my dear friend Mimian Wu did. It is such an honor seeing her name mentioned here. She LOVED RISD, and spoke of it often from the first day we met at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, until her last days in 1999.

    Mimian was an incredible, skilled artist and professional. I always looked up to her, though she was a mere 5 feet tall. Skills she easily taught me, were learned at RISD. She cherished those years.

    Her line work, when doing architectural drawings were unparalleled. Her passion for design, and creativity were a marvel to witness.

    Beyond that, she was an AMAZING friend. I found the program to her Memorial Service yesterday and just wanted to retrace the steps of her life, and I found your article.

    Thank you for letting see another glimpse of the life she shared with you all.

    Missing my divine Friend, Ms. Mimian F. Wu,

    Best regards,

    Joy C. Moyler

    • Betsy

      Thank you, Joy – for writing and sharing your personal thoughts about Mimian. We were very close friends all through RISD – we roomed together sophomore and junior years. We stayed in touch for quite awhile, but then lost touch and I would stay apprised of her life through our mutual friend Barbara Bachman. She was indeed supremely talented and always very modest about this – I remember her delicate and exquisite drawings and her love for wearing unique hats! The world lost a beautiful person when she died – but I am so glad that she touched many people’s lives in her all-too short life, including mine.

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