Last week, as the Grace Church bells echoed through the channels of Downcity, a tall, blond, model-handsome priest in full black clerical suit strode down Westminster St. Arrested by this sight, I looked first for the signature trailers of a movie production, scanning for evidence of “Thornbirds III.” Not finding them, I considered performance art. I’ve seen angels and demons, gargoyles and fairies glide among the bankers, waitresses, and politicians of downtown. Was there a street festival today? I thought too about the fashion statements of our art students. Vintage aprons paired with striped socks and kung fu shoes, floor length maxi-gowns with Docs, and lately a rash of tri-cornered hats. What won’t a RISD student wear? Only finally did it occur to me that perhaps what I was seeing was … a priest. This I considered last. Welcome to Providence, my friend.
In downtown Providence, you see, there is a different Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually: art. On the twinkling catwalk that is Westminster, on the dining strip of Washington, on the busy waterfront of Memorial Street, Providence presents not only places and spaces to present art of every discipline, but people with the talent to pull it off. And while the most efficient way to see the spirit of Providence en masse is through one of the brilliant outdoor parades and festivals such WaterFire, Sound Session, or First Works, you can view vignettes on any day, simply by strolling the historic streets and visiting the people whose stores and restaurants make downtown a destination.
For a potent hit of Providence style, visit Heir (65 Eddy St.) Inside, Tyler Doran has created a gallery of folk art and industrial objects, anatomical displays and vintage oddities mixed among high-end modern bags, candles, and art books. It may not occur to you until you enter that you want a bust sculpted to fit a Dr. Warner’s Health Corset, but once your eyes light on it, you’ll wonder how you’ve lived without it. Ditto the authentic Shaker bonnet and the doll hair display. Providence represents most directly with fine pieces from RISD alumni, such as the molded styrene stool that resembles a crumpled wad of paper from alum Da Sul Kim.
Just an antique bowling pin’s throw from Heir you’ll find Queen of Hearts, (186 Union St.) a diminutive boutique given over mostly to locally made, hand-produced clothing, and upcycled jewelry and accessories. But don’t be fooled by the small retail storefront. Queen of Hearts is also the global headquarters for the FAM Collaborative, an initiative with big goals aimed at giving Providence youth access to the creative studies of Fashion, Arts, and Music. Karen Beebe, Queen of Hearts owner and a clothing designer, is self-taught and wants to help close the gap where traditional education opportunities lag. FAM produces a rollicking fashion show fundraiser annually and creates other gallery events to further their mission.
Follow the wafting smell of black beans and rice, and you’ll undoubtedly arrive at the art-space-cum-taqueria at AS220. Hundreds of years from now, when historians tell the tale of Providence, AS220 will figure mightily as the steady magnet that galvanized Providence’s Downcity art scene. Gallery, community darkroom, performance space, incubator, live/work space, AS220 has done it all for nearly 30 years. All it lacked was bitchin’ burritos. With the fusing of Taqueria Pacifica (103 Empire St.) in 2006, AS220 became no longer simply the destination for art lovers, but for the librarians, cops, health care workers, and actors who lunch daily in this stretch of the city.
What do we call the relation between Taqueria Pacifica and Local 121 (121 Washington St.)? Like the former, Local 121 is also housed in an AS220 building, this one the print shop, with its Vandercooks and silk-screen tables turning out many of the distinctive and colorful flyers that bloom on the telephone pole stalks of the city. Let’s say we call Local 121 a sister-site to the taco shop, but in this case, a sister dolled up and ready for the prom. Because the restaurant with its milk-bottle glass windows and dark ornate bar is a glamorous sight to behold. If for some reason you cannot stay for a meal composed of locally sourced and artisan-made ingredients, at least perch at the bar for a drink or two and soak up the ambiance created by the cross-section of downtown habitués who’ve made this their favorite watering hole.
Needless to say, this is a small sample of the way art infuses the Providence downtown scene. My advice: take a window seat at the restaurants because while you enjoy the artistry within, you don’t want to miss the art, staged and spontaneous, happening on the streets all the time.