Art in the Public View: Walking through RI’s street scenes

Shortly before an array of computer printouts and hand-written notes announcing business closures and curbside pickup policies presented a kind of collective commentary on COVID-19 along North Main Street, somebody spray painted a plea on an undeveloped lot near Rhode Island School of Design’s administration building: “PUT SOME ART ON THIS WALL!”

For months, the state-owned site between Cafe Choklad and Mills Tavern was an active construction zone. Where a portion of wall had been removed to expose soil retained by metal mesh, workers assembled fragments of street signs – CLOSED, DETOUR, EXIT – into an orange and white montage held in place by a ladder of wooden slats bolted into the cement. The project’s completion left behind a blank gray wall until the burst of graffiti – whether earnest advocacy, self-referential statement, or marketing stunt – colored the concrete canvas.

The booms and busts of local history, as well as more recent development decisions, have shaped the landscapes that allow for the art, both intentional and inadvertent, that adorns the region’s walls. In PVD and Pawtucket, as in Warwick and Woonsocket, the insignias of earlier occupants remain imprinted on the facades of old mills and warehouses. An abundance of highway overpasses and underinvestment in pedestrian infrastructure results in unlighted and unused spaces. As entrenched inequalities persist, makeshift memorials honor lives lost too young and community programs seek to elevate stories celebrating pride and resilience.

“When a local artist tells their story via their art, it is deep and I can see their soul in it,” said Marta V. Martinez, founder and executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts.

While artistic expression has long provided an outlet for making sense of, or making a statement on, the world, it’s also creating opportunities. PVD’s tagline as “The Creative Capital,” grew out of a 2009 brand development project with North Star, a place-branding and marketing agency headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. Since then, local arts organizations and city officials have funded and facilitated prominent displays of art throughout the downtown:

  • On Aborn Street, Shepard Fairey’s mural “Providence Industrial” applies strong and sharp shadowing to render an industrious spirit to the Superman Building, the Crook Point Bascule Bridge, and the Biltmore Hotel — icons from the eight years he spent in the city. 
  • On Custom House Street, Baltimore-based Gaia worked with the Tomaquag Museum (390A Summit Rd, Exeter) on “Still Here,” an expansive mural featuring Lynsea Montanari holding a photograph of Narragansett and Wampanoag tribal elder Princess Red Wing, as a symbol representing the continuity of local Indigenous life.
  • Between Clemence and Mathewson Streets, “She Never Came” covers the full expanse of a building with a man hunched across an empty table with a ring in hand and a rat on his shoulder. The mural by Bezt, half of the Polish street art duo Etam Cru, channels more Willard than Ratatouille.
  • In local photographer Mary Beth Meehan’s “SeenUnseen” series, a portrait of Bidur Diab Killi, the first woman to arrive in RI as a refugee from the Syrian civil war, smiles above a parking lot off Snow Street, inaugurated in 2017 by Mayor Jorge Elorza.

“Working in public is complicated as it includes many voices and stakeholders that are easy to identify and often not so much,” said Yarrow Thorne, founder and executive director of the Avenue Concept, a PVD-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting public art. Public murals and the installation of other works in public spaces involve managing copyrights, artist fees, material costs, community outreach, insurance coverage and other layers, said Thorne.

In July 2021, an agreement between The Avenue Concept and the City of Providence detailed a shared belief that “public art provides not only aesthetic benefits but also opportunities for education, inspiration, quality of life, increased tourism and economic development.” After Providence’s police and fire departments and Verizon raised no objections to The Avenue Concept’s proposed placements of public installations, the City granted the organization exclusive easements through 2030. The Avenue Concept agreed to present an annual plan to the City for approval.

“We create infrastructure for our public art portfolio of murals and sculptures and programs to change and evolve over time,” said Thorne. “It’s making space for artists and taking care of logistics. We’ve created standards and tools to ensure that artists can focus on executing their personal vision with as much flexibility as possible.”

This summer, the Avenue Concept is working with Emblem 125, a residential and retail project under development in the Jewelry District, to commission a mural by Aryz and coordinate his travel from Spain. Five new sculptures will also be placed throughout downtown PVD.

“It’s challenging because, as I’m told by some of our artists, they are being told that the local talent is not as high quality as it can be and they are encouraged to leave RI to establish themselves elsewhere,” said Martinez.

At the moment, Rhode Island Latino Arts is supporting Rene Gómez with a two-year residency. His mural, “El Corazón de Providence” graces the interior of La Broa’ Pizza (925 Broad St, PVD). His utility-box portraits feature Juan Pablo Duarte, the most widely celebrated founder of the Dominican Republic, and Josefina “Doña Fefa” Rosario, memorialized as the “‘mother’ of Rhode Island’s Latino communities” in the Providence Journal after her death at 90. Martinez said she hopes the support gives Gómez space to create and build his portfolio. He’s currently at work on a series of portraits that Martinez expects will be displayed later in the year. 

Local nonprofits AS220 and New Urban Arts also support community mural projects, as does the City’s department of Art, Culture, and Tourism. In Pawtucket, a focus on public art emerged from the city’s annual arts festival (Held since 1999, the 24th annual event is scheduled to take place from September 9 to 18). These publicly supported efforts have led to nine sculptures, 12 murals, and 28 painted utility boxes on the streets of Pawtucket.

In November, Gabriel Calle Arango traveled from Medellín, Colombia to contribute a mural, “Esperanza,” to Slater Memorial Park. And as part of the Cornerstone Corporation project under development at 6 George St, representatives of the city and arts organizations will review more than 100 bids proposed by artists across the country, to integrate public art along Pleasant St.

“We are the city of the arts,” said Emily Rizzo, Pawtucket City Hall spokesperson. “Pawtucket has always had that kind of involvement. One of our goals is to continue attracting more artists, fostering them, continuing the momentum and representing the cultures in our community.”

Throughout the Creative Capital, and across RI, publicly and privately funded projects alike captivate – and capitalize on – sustained interest in these street scenes. But as brick walls and utility boxes increasingly become approved platforms for creative expression, unsanctioned equivalents remain misdemeanors under state law. The Avenue Concept maintains 240 square feet of “legal walls” outside its headquarters (304 Lockwood St) for artists seeking safe, legal space on which to experiment and share their work. Otherwise, those heeding the call to “PUT SOME ART ON THIS WALL!” typically must be accepted into formal programs or risk criminal charges.

As mobile apps, self-guided walking tours and even runners’ meetups encourage audiences from near and far to explore and celebrate public art as a local attraction, the intentions of the artists themselves and the exterior spaces that serve as their canvases reveal even deeper stories of the city and its communities. Is a mural on a shuttered storefront a touristic invitation or a distraction from the emptiness of its interior space? Is the patching of a crack on a wall beauty in the eye of the beholder or a reminder of the need to invest in basic maintenance?

Some Latent Linguistic Irreverence: Alta L. Price on language learning while printmaking

Image sources: Alta L. Price, World Editions

As an undergraduate arriving at Rhode Island School of Design in 1997, Alta L. Price was dead-set on studying German at “the school across the street” — Brown University. Growing up in New York’s Mohawk Valley, Price had fallen in love with the language rather by accident as a teenager after stopping by the village green to browse a used book sale raising funds for the local library. They left with New Directions 19, a 1966 anthology containing four poems by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger translated into English, and an appetite whet by the realization that literature could live across languages. In PVD, Price received approval from both RISD and Brown to begin their first German classes. A requirement: climbing College Hill.

“The presence of German in my life is definitely like a bizarre childhood dream that just insisted on surfacing in strange ways no matter where I was or am,” said Price.

At RISD, an initial interest in drawing shifted toward printmaking, following a taste of lithography with Andrew Raftery and an introduction to the intaglio technique led by visiting professor Carol Wax. They wandered the RISD Museum and lingered in the campus library amidst the sights, sounds and smells of half a million prints and clippings held in the Picture Collection.

Although Price hoped to study abroad in Mainz, Germany — home to the Gutenberg Museum — departmental requirements limited the option. Instead, they followed the advice of a drawing instructor, Tom Mills, to set sight on a junior-year honors program in Rome. In preparation, Price said PVD became “my own personal Babel.” They juggled German at Brown, Italian at RISD, and “a welcome respite from all language” in the studio. While studying in Italy, Price met an international network of German-speaking artists at a conference and exhibition in Tuscany.

Adept in both German and Italian upon returning to RI, Price found the art of translation across their studies, from philosophy to handmade paper and writing systems to the literature of the Bible. During a class in graphic design, Price discovered the professor John Hegnauer alternated the course title between an introduction to the hand-carved letter and an introduction to the hand-drawn letter. The fluidity and variability of that naming, said Price, “might have spoken to some latent linguistic irreverence lurking within me.”

From PVD, Price moved to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. for their first job after graduation, at an art center in Riverdale, Maryland. An interest in reconnecting with fellow RISD alums later brought them to New York. During nearly two decades in Long Island City, Queens, they worked in publishing and earned an MFA at Hunter College. Price now resides in Chicago.

As well as papermaking and printmaking, Price runs a consultancy specializing in literary translation. Their works range from artistic resources Alfa-Beta: The Study and Design of Type and The Book Cover in the Weimar Republic to narratives like Alexander Kluge’s montage Anyone Who Utters a Consoling Word is a Traitor and Anna Goldenberg’s family memoir of Jewish exile and return, I Belong to Vienna. PEN America named Price as one of five finalists for its 2022 PEN Translation Prize for their translation of New Year by Juli Zeh from German.

“Radfahren ist pure Entspannung,” Price construes as “Cycling is pure relaxation” in New Year’s opening. Like many of Price’s experiences, the pages resurface a memory of PVD. During Price’s senior year, they were bicycling when a pre-med student opened a car door directly into their path. A helmet protected their head from the pavement. More than two decades passed, until 2021, before Price rode a bike again. In New Year, they continue as the protagonist “shifts gears, pushes down harder on the pedals, and forces himself to keep breathing calmly.”

“I am only a translator today,” said Price, “thanks to a string of serendipitous events during my years in RI and the ongoing support of folks I met there, at both RISD and Brown. ”

Alta L. Price’s translation of Juli Zeh’s novel New Year was published in 2021 by World Editions.

At Home in the In-Between: Julia Sanches on migration and movement

Julia Sanches and Mariana Oliver’s Migratory Birds.

In 2017, a podcast from Letras Libras, a literary magazine published in Mexico and Spain, aired the essay “Aves Migratorias” contemplating the journeys of Bill Lishman. In his homemade aircraft, the artist and aviator featured in the film Fly Away Home settled into a self-propelled seat in the sky to lead a migration of Canadian geese. New to Newport and scouting potential projects for translation, Julia Sanches listened to the segment in her apartment, enrapt as the author Mariana Oliver read her work: “Algunas veces, de manera inesperada, es posible anticipar fragmentos del futuro en un momento.” Sanches heard how the words might sound taking flight in another form: “Sometimes, out of the blue, you catch a glimpse of the future.”

Born in São Paulo, Sanches moved to Manhattan when she was three months old on account of her father’s employment with a multinational corporation. From their apartment west of Central Park, Sanches’ mother walked with her through the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She babbled with strangers on the city’s public transit, and often returned to the family’s rental unit having lost a shoe during her day’s outings. Her parents’ social circle centered around other Brazilians, and they returned to Brazil annually to visit family.

When Sanches’ family moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, followed by New York’s Hudson Valley, her mother hesitated to welcome friends into their house. She heard Americans were litigious, and also worried she might serve her guests the wrong meal. When Sanches traveled to Brazil, her cousins called her “gringa” — foreigner. She would fall silent their first week back, then engage fluently in Portuguese. The inverse happened in Englsh upon returning to the U.S.

When Sanches was eight, her family moved to Mexico City, where they lived for five years. The summer before September 11, 2001, they returned to New York’s Hudson Valley for “some consistency,” her parents said. After several months Sanches recalled as “not a fun time to be a foreigner in America,” her family relocated to Switzerland where she spent her teenage years.

“I hadn’t stepped foot in Europe,” said Sanches. “I may have even confused it with Sweden for a while.”

In high school, Sanches added French and Italian to her knowledge of English, Portuguese, and Spanish. After undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, she pursued a master’s degree in literature and translation at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona where she picked up Catalan, the primary language of Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain. As the country struggled with a years-long economic crisis, Sanches read young adult book manuscripts in English for a publishing house and wrote “reader’s reports” in Spanish for their eventual publication in Catalan. She then tried her lot with the publishing industry in New York. Moving to Brooklyn, Sanches stepped into a role as an assistant at the Wylie literary agency.

Sanches hadn’t stepped foot in Rhode Island before she and her partner moved to Newport in 2017 when he accepted a role as an art conservator for a regional nonprofit. They found a more welcoming community in PVD, buoyed by the comfort of living in a city where nearly 44% of the population traces family origins to Central and South America. While focusing primarily on her literary translations, Sanches worked part-time at Riffraff, a bookstore and bar in Olneyville.

After her introduction to Mariana Oliver’s writing through the Letras Libras podcast, Sanches tracked down her manuscript published by the Mexican Ministry of Culture as part of a project developed to support the country’s writers 35 years old and younger. Several U.S. literary journals turned down Sanches’ initial translation of the opening essay on Lishman’s aerial feat, but a friend and fellow translator Charlotte Whittle, who completed her master’s degree at Brown University, commissioned Sanches to translate another of Oliver’s essays for the online magazine Words Without Borders for an edition on the theme of “wandering and isolation.”

In Oakland, California, co-founder of independent publisher Transit Books Adam Levy read Sanches’ translation in Words Without Borders. Levy and Sanches had overlapped briefly at the Wylie Agency, and he reached out to commission a complete translation of Oliver’s work. Throughout the process, Sanches and Oliver messaged almost daily on WhatsApp around editorial nuance. In one case, Sanches grappled with an excerpt where Oliver intentionally used Spanish words derived from Arabic origins like aceituna and naranja. Because the English equivalents of olive and orange stemmed from non-Arabic roots, she opted for apricot and tangerine instead. Oliver asked Sanches to leave a voice message reading the copy aloud, so she could compare the cadence of the language. In 2021, Transit published Migratory Birds

On March 4, PEN America awarded Sanches its annual PEN Translation Prize for her rendering of Oliver’s work. The judges wrote: “Migration is as natural to humans as to so many species of birds, but we have never before read such a light yet profound illustration of this principle as in Migratory Birds, brought to new audiences in Sanches’ outstanding translation.”

As the announcement took place at a ceremony in New York, Sanches was fast asleep late at night in Barcelona on a residency program in preparation for translating the 1977 novel El temps de les cireres by Montserrat Roig. Oliver live streamed the awards in Mexico, sending videos and messages of her celebration to Sanches as digital packets in flight across the Atlantic.

“It’s possible that the reason I was so drawn to this book has to do with its expansive geography, and its mirroring of my own experience of the world, in a way,” said Sanches.

“There is no place more like home for me than spaces of multiplicity and in-betweenness.”

Julia Sanches’ translation of Mariana Oliver’s essay collection Migratory Birds was published by Transit Books.

The Power Wielded by Writers: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman on the fight for freedom of expression

After boarding a bus in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad for a day trip to the ancient archeological site of Taxila with the nonprofit International Center for Journalists in 2013, I fell into easy conversation with my seatmate. A former member of the Brown University Board of Trustees, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman had long served on the boards of arts, journalism, and human rights organizations. As we trundled past colorful patterns and calligraphic adornments on cargo trucks likewise journeying along the national highway lined with jacaranda and cedar trees, Leedom-Ackerman reminisced about her own history advocating for freedom of expression.

As a vice president emeritus of PEN International, who previously chaired the organization’s committee for writers imprisoned around the world, she recalled certain high-profile campaigns: supporting Salman Rushdie in the wake of the 1989 fatwa calling for his death, defending Orhan Pamuk against criminal charges after referring to the Armenian genocide, and calling for justice following the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. In a new memoir, PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line, published by the British poetry house Shearsman Books, Leedom-Ackerman sets these chilling attempts to suppress literary and media freedoms alongside the inner-workings of PEN’s branches in more than 100 countries.

During a virtual event hosted by the International Center for Journalists to celebrate Leedom-Ackerman’s book release, the author Salil Tripathi referenced the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan twenty years ago as a horrifying turning point in the curtailment of free expression through an escalated and targeted use of violence. But beyond foreign correspondents, the writers most often confronting threats to their lives and livelihoods locally in Pakistan are those writing for their audience in Punjabi, Pashto, Urdu and other regional languages. The same holds true around the world, from the ongoing detention of poets and novelists, to harassment and sexual violence against women writers in particular.

PEN Journeys reinforces the sobering reminder that for every story of successful advocacy, there are far more failures — and all the more reason to share their words, in both the original and in translation. As for the power still wielded by writers imprisoned, in exile, in need of refuge, or otherwise at risk, Leedom-Ackerman summons the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam:

You took away all the oceans and all the room.

You gave me my shoe-size with bars around it.

Where did it get you? Nowhere.

You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s memoir PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line was published in 2022 by Shearsman Books.

Experimental Compositions: The illusion and immersion of Happy Place

(Happy Place: Dan Lippel (guitar), Andrew Smiley (guitar), Will Mason (drums), Kate Gentile (drums), Gelsey Bell (vocals), Charlotte Mundy (vocals); photo credit: Bryan Sargent)

As late January’s nor’easter dropped nearly two feet of snow in Tiverton, Will Mason prepared for his students’ return to in-person classes following extra Omicron precautions. After a week of slow snowmelt, heavy rains gave way to a flash freeze. When Mason stepped outside on Saturday morning for a walk with his dog, he described the ice-encrusted environment as a “juxtaposition of motion and stillness, force and resistance.” Mason listened to the wind. With a mild apology for departing from his postmodern milieu, he recalled a poem by Wallace Stevens:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

An assistant professor of music technology and theory at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., Mason advises his students that “interesting music is made by interesting people.” Encouraging them to cultivate different sources of inspiration, he argues that a film or a book, or a walk around a city or on a rural trail, could subsequently manifest in art as much as hours in the thrall of the composers he teaches most often: Johann Sebastian Bach and Duke Ellington.

“I try to have it feel like an experimentation sandbox and less like a math class,” said Mason.

During a childhood day trip to Boston from his hometown of Falmouth, Maine, Mason slipped from his seat at the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater during an immersive panorama – the scenes and sounds triggering an involuntary perception of action rather than observation. In high school, he drove around Portland’s suburbs lost in the counterintuitive time signatures of the drums on Radiohead’s albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. As an undergraduate studying political science and contemporary improvisation at Oberlin College, a liberal arts school and musical conservancy 30 miles west of Cleveland, Mason discovered a vast world in the avant-garde.

Having recorded and toured with Like Bells, instrumentalists in the footsteps of Do Make Say Think, Mason moved to New York for a PhD program in music theory at Columbia University. While living in the East Village of Manhattan, he suffered a sudden inability to sleep, explaining in an essay: “it was a watershed year in both my academic and musical life and I couldn’t shut my mind off at the end of the day, and irritation at being unable to sleep only compounded the situation.” Mason’s struggles with insomnia and anxiety led to hallucinations, and new ideas.

“I spent a lot of nights sitting at my kitchen counter sketching music,” said Mason. “In general I became fascinated with the ways that exceptional or aberrant psychological states have contributed to various musical traditions across the globe and across history.”

While Mason mitigated his risk of psychoses with treatment, the drafts he composed during what he considers “a kind of productive isolation” laid the framework for a two-drum, two-guitar avant-rock project, Happy Place, named with an ironic nod to its bleak origins. After the 2016 release of Northfield, the four-piece welcomed sopranos Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy. The sextet mixed its 2020 album, tendrils, at Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket. The vocals, Mason said, contrast with “lower, crunchy guitars” and the “low end heft” of distorted drums.

With the instrumentation of Northfield’s “Rapture!,” which threatens like the brooding swarm of Isis’ The Mosquito Control EP, Mason sought to telegraph feelings of both anguish and ascendance.

Dissonant and disconcerting, Happy Place’s albums imbue the forceful quirk of Shellac and Don Caballero with the spirit of Sun Ra. Released by the independent label Exit Stencil Recordings, both Northfield and tendrils could be at home in the older catalogs of Southern and Touch & Go Records. The band’s artistry fits as much in a time machine to the warehouse shows of Fort Thunder as in a black box theater on campus at Berklee College of Music.

After moving to RI for the position at Wheaton, Mason anticipated performing live, but the pandemic put those intentions on hold. Around classes, he began to adapt his dissertation into a book on the illusory feelings conjured by “human-machine couplings in the studio” – the tools used to make modern music. He wrote new compositions from his parents’ home on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine, and sought inspiration on woodland walks in neighboring Little Compton.

As well as listening to “the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough in the distant glitter” on a snowy day with Wallace Stevens, Mason returns to John Cage’s lectures on silence and the Alaskan journals of John Luther Adams. Crediting composer Pauline Oliveros, Adams reflected, “These days, most of us are inundated with music and other sounds. I feel very fortunate to live in a place where silence endures as a pervasive, enveloping presence.”

“Doing and knowing are inseparable,” said Mason. “I try to keep things very hands-on.”

Happy Place makes its RI debut with Brooklyn-based free-jazz player Ned Rothenberg at The Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, PVD on Sat, Mar 12. Doors 7pm. Show 8pm. All ages. $15 (at press time). Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination required.

The Nature We Build Around Us: A conversation with Connor Burbridge of Nuts & Bolts Nursery Co-op

(image source: Nuts & Bolts Nursery Co-op)

With hopes that March melts February’s freeze and April’s showers again bring May flowers, Motif’s Sean Carlson interviewed Connor Burbridge of Nuts & Bolts Nursery (374 Farnum Pike, Smithfield), a cooperative housed at the permaculture nonprofit Revive the Roots. Opened in 2021 as a worker-owned nursery specializing in edible perennial plants, Nuts & Bolts is working to build an alternative food system that combats climate change, increases biodiversity, and promotes social and economic equity. Before getting your hands dirty with yardwork this spring or wiping them clean of responsibility, review the University of Rhode Island’s searchable guide to locally native plants and the small, sustainable steps to take in your own neighborhood

Sean Carlson (Motif): It can be easy to think of “nature” as a defined place like a park or preserve, a destination within set borders. How should we consider this concept?

CB: The funny thing about nature is that it reinforces this idea that it’s separate from us, or that we’re above it. But humans have shaped the world for more than 200 thousand years. Even today, parks and forests are usually heavily managed by government agencies. Nature is the world we build around us, whether cities made of concrete and metal or neighborhoods full of trees and soil. There are complex interactions between rural areas, suburbs, and cities, with a flow of people, goods, and raw materials going back and forth between them all. We should choose and shape what nature we live in, and our co-op chooses to work towards one of biodiversity, sustainability, and equality.

SC: What would you suggest to those who’d say they aren’t gardeners or naturalists?

CB: There’s nothing wrong with starting small, experimenting, and making mistakes. Everything is a learning process. Start on a smaller scale with lower maintenance plants, like mint or basil in a planter, and get to know how to identify and use some common edible “weeds,” like dandelion or mulberry. Ask questions of other gardeners or growers and maybe check out events or workdays at a local community garden. One secret is that a lot of plants die, even for the best gardener or farmer. It’s okay if your plants don’t end up producing vegetables. It’s okay if you get too busy and your garden turns to weeds. Keep trying. Eventually, you’ll learn to be a better observer and let the plants teach you. There are many ways to grow. You will find edible and useful plants everywhere. Maybe there’s something growing in your local park that you won’t know is useful until you start gardening and paying attention to the ecosystem.

SC: For reasons of cost and convenience, many readers will turn to larger retailers for gardening supplies. How can they leave the best possible footprint?

CB: There are many incredible local nurseries and plant centers across our state, and I hope that people will give them a chance. Our nursery in Smithfield, for example, is small but we are deeply rooted in the community and support local grassroots projects. We will help people with whatever they’re dreaming up for their backyard food forests or however they’re hoping to experiment. Even if people think they don’t have a green thumb, we will be sure to get them started with the right edible plant. We want to see people growing food because it’s good for their health, their happiness, and their families. Grow food. Make art. Our belief is that we can build a regenerative culture and a caring community in the face of climate change. You won’t get all that at Home Depot.

SC: The concept of nativism is commonly associated with policies against immigration. Do you ever worry about the language of native plants and invasive species?

CB: An important thing to consider around native plants is that first we are on native land. Calls to restore historical plants to an ecosystem without addressing the issue of Indigenous people’s rights to their ancestral homelands is a deep injustice. The Indigenous people of the northeast woodlands had, and still have, incredibly complex systems for managing whole forests and rivers by understanding the connections within an ecosystem. Now, people can identify more corporate logos than they can plants, so part of the problem around invasives stems from a lack of awareness and poor ecosystem management practices. If we listened to Indigenous people, our perspectives would be different, the solutions would be more nuanced, and we would better recognize the relationship between environmental issues and social injustice.

SC: How can more mindful stewardship of the land outside our doorsteps help us all?

CB: Ultimately, everyone comes from a family and culture that at one time or another was based around farming and living in connection to the land. People might be 100 years removed from that culture but that connection is still there. Gardening and growing food can actually teach you so much about yourself and the world around you. In Farming While Black, a book reflecting on the experiences of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY, author Leah Penniman writes about the importance of connecting to your ancestral traditions through food and farming. This is important work for us white folks as well. Throughout history, many European farming peoples were kicked off their lands and forced to move into crowded cities. Part of the work to heal the wounds of white supremacy in particular is to rebuild these cultural connections to the environment and food, and address the harms done to ecosystems and cultures around the world.

Vocalizing Grief: Dr. Jones heals while experimenting with Hawthorn

Kate Jones, recording as Dr. Jones; photo credit: Ryan Lopes and Leiyana Simone

While working as a nanny in Los Angeles, Kate Jones joined a drop-in chorus. She had sung in school choirs while growing up in Rhode Island and Vermont, but her newfound community traded hymns for harmonies of “No Hate, No Fear,” and choral covers of Bauhaus and OutKast. Founded to resist the fatigue of recurring protests, the group replaced rally shouts with shared song. Jones was unable to attend the political demonstrations but found similar sentiments performing at other local events, including at UCLA’s Hammer Museum of contemporary art.

Adept with a vocal range that extended from choir to a cappella and from folk to pop, Jones wrote her own music on a keyboard, guitar and ukulele in her East Hollywood apartment, but couldn’t remember screaming since childhood. At 9, Jones lost her mother to breast cancer. More than a decade later, three months after Jones graduated from Providence College, her father passed away from esophageal cancer. Silent sorrows knotted into frustration and shame.

“I had this sort of spiritual, but also very childlike, view of death,” said Jones. “I was always really comfortable talking about my parents and my loss and my grief in a really matter-of-fact way, but extremely uncomfortable in actually being able to allow myself to feel it or express it.”

Under the name of Dr. Jones — believing in the healing quality of music in general, and the voice in particular — in 2017 Jones released Thundercloud Plum. The six-song EP vacillates from the robust Q Division-engineered “Gold & In Style” to a banjo- and synth-laden rendition of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to raw cuts recorded by mobile phone. Since returning to Providence in 2019, Jones has collaborated with Laila Aukee on Hawthorn, a full-length in progress named after the herb traditionally used for cardiovascular support. With echoes of Markéta Irglová and the XX, Jones’s latest single “What is Happening” surfaces her struggles with relearning to cry.

“It felt like this revelation that I was almost embarrassed by,” said Jones, “that I had made such a big deal out of these things I felt like I couldn’t do that are supposed to be natural and seem so easy to so many people.”

In her previous bands the Sugar Honey Iced Tea, Dr. Jones & the Shiners, Hott Boyz, and the Tequikees, Jones’s vocals stretched across musical landscapes, from bluegrass to psychedelic to classic R&B. With a poppier yet grounded touch to her first two singles from Hawthorn, Dr. Jones draws from the breakthroughs she found in therapy, herbalism, collective chorus and dance aerobics — “fiercely non-competitive,” she said — to give form to feelings. 

“Songwriting and singing has always been a way for me to unload and work through some of my own pain and grief,” said Jones. “Perhaps mine can also have its little place in the larger spectrum of that musical body, that allows for healing to take place.”


Dr. Jones, Host, and Grace Ward play The Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, Providence on Tue, March 1. Doors at 7pm. Show at 8pm. All ages. $10. Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination required.

The Gems of August Wilson: A conversation with Michelle Cruz of Trinity Rep

In 1987, when August Wilson’s Fences received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Providence Journal’s arts critic William Gale hailed the Pittsburgh playwright: “His plays leap from his own gut. They’re about things that really count — family relationships, the Black experience in America — and they have many colors, a multitude of themes, great seriousness along with humor and gusto. They strike where you live.” 

Later that year, Trinity Repertory Company brought Wilson’s work to Providence. From its 1987 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in a studio with the eponymous blues legend to Radio Golf in 2020 charting an aspiring politician’s attempt to reconcile community interests with urban development, Trinity Rep has cycled through the struggles Wilson wrote of in the 20th century. (The Providence Black Repertory Company, a now-defunct nonprofit that spun out from acting workshops at AS220, staged Fences in 2001, as did the Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket in 2013.) With Gem of the Ocean opening at Trinity Rep on Feb 24, Motif’s Sean Carlson interviewed the director of community engagement Michelle Cruz about how Wilson’s words continue to strike.

Sean Carlson (Motif): This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first production of Jitney – and 35 years since the first Trinity Rep production of Wilson’s work. Why do his plays continue to resonate?

Michelle Cruz: In many ways, we harken back to whether Black Americans would have been better to stay in the South. Time and time again, we’re faced with this question in his characters — some of whom we see grow older and whose future generations of family we meet – and wonder, are they truly faring better? Was the Great Migration that great? What have generations of residents gone through with redlining and unfair housing practices? What has that lack of opportunity done to the possibility of generational wealth? Whether here in Providence or Wilson’s Pittsburgh, parallels unfortunately remain.

SC: The last show Trinity Rep staged before COVID-19 was Radio Golf. With Gem of the Ocean now opening, it’s like Wilson bookends a period that has pulled on these threads of family and community.

MC: More eyes have opened to the disparities Wilson explores, absolutely in minority families but also those who have, all of a sudden, found themselves in a place of hopelessness and restlessness.

Christopher Lindsay and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley star as Citizen Barlow and Solly Two-Kings respectively in Trinity Rep’s 2022 production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean

SC: For more than a year, you’ve led an August Wilson reading group. How did the program start?

MC: “10 Weeks with August Wilson” began with a personal goal. Months into the pandemic, I decided to escape into the Century Cycle of Wilson’s plays. At Trinity Rep, we were trying to connect with our audiences virtually. I mentioned my goal, and our education director thought we could get folks to delve into Wilson. Our class sold out in a day. Attendees love being placed in these decades. We have people from Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and of course locals of all ages, from a board member to a father and daughter who bonded by reading Wilson in what has otherwise been an isolating time. [Ed. note: Trinity Rep’s next class on Wilson’s work begins Feb. 26, with registration currently open.]

SC: The Netflix release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as a feature film last year includes an astounding performance by Viola Davis as the eponymous blues singer. Davis grew up in Central Falls and graduated from Rhode Island College. She debuted on Broadway in a 1996 run of Wilson’s Seven Guitars. How have you seen Davis’s talent and trajectory inspire others locally?

MC: She’s an absolute inspiration to many, whether interested in acting or not. Representation matters: The sheer presence of someone who looks like you can plant that seed to strive for more. I remember the Adams Central Library in Central Falls showing the film Fences and walking toward a nearby street, Viola Davis Way, and feeling a huge sense of pride. Ma Rainey is such a needed story to tell, for what was going on with race in the recording industry, the theft of Black music, and her struggles as a woman in the business. Actors are storytellers and Davis’ story is powerful – for students, other actors and our community.

SC: What’s on your mind as you prepare for Gem of the Ocean to open at Trinity Rep?

MC: Gem of the Ocean is a lyrical masterpiece of myth and history. W.E.B. DuBois spoke to the notion of developing Black theater that was “by us, for us, near us and about us.” Years later, in his speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson reminds us of the connections of Black theater to its origins on the slave plantations of the South, either as forced entertainment for slaveowners and guests or as an investment in a tradition of the arts for spiritual survival, in the spirit of their ancestors.

SC: For readers unfamiliar with Wilson, where should they begin? 

MC: With the man himself. Read Wilson’s autobiographical How I Learned What I Learned. He shares inspirations for his characters and tells us about his life, including quitting school after a plagiarism accusation because a paper he wrote was “too good” and spending his days at the Carnegie Library instead. Walk in his footsteps. Sit with him listening to neighbors at local diners. Then, delve into his Century Cycle masterpieces chronologically, decade by decade. It’s a journey and time well spent.

From Isolation to Consolation: The pandemic recordings of David Summit

Personal Summit (Source: David Summit)

In the singer-songwriter tradition, the Earth’s elevation often stands as a measure of life’s ups and downs. Merle Haggard was always on a mountain (when he fell). While Burl Ives left a legacy down in the valley, Johnny Cash looked for the man on the hill and Dolly Parton found comfort in her Tennessee mountain home. More recently, Iron & Wine went upward over the mountain, Dom Flemons went backward up another one, and Conor Oberst looked inward from a peak he saw as upside-down. In a state known better for its sea level than its great heights, David Summit began to chart his musical ascent from a low point in a Rhode Island attic.

A former guitarist in Trophy Wives, a pop-punk band that played several dates on the 2015 Vans Warped Tour, Summit was in his final year at Rhode Island College studying classical guitar and music education when he suffered a concussion. The impact of his injury left Summit feeling like a different person, he said, and created a sense of distance from family and friends. In solitude beneath the eaves of the roof at his Warwick home, he wrote musical arrangements and lyrical accompaniments over a period of ten months, between November 2017 and July 2018. 

“It was a lonely time in which I spent traveling inward to dark places of my being, and allowing that dark part to speak and do the writing,” said Summit.

After emerging from reclusivity, Summit has released his debut, Our June, Us All, in 2019. The solitary accomplishment swirls with the layers of an ensemble, borrowing across genres to deliver a despairing yet spirited album with a poetry and musicality that shifts between sparing and soaring. In the wake of his seclusion, Summit said he found community at a regular open mic night for writers, musicians, and other artists at Twenty Stories bookstore (107 Ives St., Providence). He asked his new friends to contribute their own touches to his followup album — “a sort of artifact of our meeting,” he said. In all, sixteen collaborators contributed vocals or instruments in sessions recorded mostly as a series of live performances, without cuts or edits.

“I don’t really trust art that isn’t raw,” said Summit. “Art can be sold, but art isn’t selling anything.”

The resulting record, In All My Travelin’, reveals a more vibrant, optimistic side of Summit, anchored by a toe-tapping, harmonica-driven rhythm and a busker’s knack for storytelling. Released on March 28, 2020, less than three weeks after Providence venues shuttered due to Covid-19, Summit shifted his record release party from AS220 to an Instagram livestream.

“I do find it ominously ironic that it was released during such a dark time in which traveling is not only limited, but restricted,” said Summit while abiding by the state’s shelter-in-place order.

On the heels of Travelin’, Summit released four more albums since the beginning of the pandemic. All In or Nothing collects the folksy B-sides left over from the Twenty Stories sessions. Only Joy, recorded with an artist identified as Lillian Rose, serves as an acoustic act of adoration for Summit’s infant daughter that doubles as a soundtrack to a film of family footage. Even Split, which Summit describes as a “pretty sorrowful” album and “the ‘looking in’ to Travelin’s ‘looking out,’” opens a richer window on his internal state, with glimmers of possibility still peeking through. In early October, on Summit’s 28th birthday, he released Red Fox at the Whippoorwill, his first collection of covers, steering from Bob Dylan to Blind Pilot.

While Whipporwill is titled in reference to the motel cabin in Lake George, N.Y., where Summit recorded the tracks, it also borrows from his closing rendition of Hank Williams: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly.” Stepping into his choice of covers with the comfort of a worn coat, Summit unfolds the rises and falls of others with his own touch. Playing John Prine, he reflects, “Hey, how lucky can one man get.” And like Don Williams and Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia before him, Summit excavates ground trodden by Townes Van Zandt to dwell in a state against which “All the mountains and the rivers / And the valleys can’t compare.”

“I am continuing to work on new projects all of the time,” said Summit. “I’m looking forward to seeing what opportunities open up as the world does.”

The recordings of David Summit: Our June, Us All (2019), In All My Travelin’ (2020), All In or Nothing (2020), Only Joy (2021), Even Split (2021), Red Fox at the Whippoorwill (2021).

Crushing Metal: Burr Buzzes Alongside Don’t Grow Old

Nefarious Industries serves up a new pairing with Burr and Don’t Grow Old 

Casey Belisle, Mike Dantowitz, and Justin Enis (L to R) of the band Burr and Providence coffee roaster Bolt (photo credit: Burr)

Long used for pulverizing minerals, the burr mill transformed food production by improving the consistency of ground grains, corn, and coffee. At Bolt Coffee’s Providence flagship (61 Washington St.), barista Casey Belisle, assistant roaster Mike Dantowitz, and coffee director Justin Enis wield a Mythos grinder manufactured by Nuova Simonelli for espresso and an EK43 from Mahlkonig for filtered coffee. The motorized models replicate the mechanics of a handheld salt or pepper mill, crushing beans into the grinds that — with the ratio of water, its temperature, and brew time — define the flavor profile of a cup of coffee. Too fine of a grind increases the likelihood of a sludgier or bitter taste, whereas too coarse of a grind can contribute to a weak or watery brew. On the sound system at Bolt’s roastery (96 Calverey St.), Belisle, Dantowitz, and Enis share an appreciation for heavier, slower grinds, like the sounds of Electric Wizard, Thou, and Yob. With a nod to their trade, they apply a similar precision to metal with their band, Burr.

Founded in 2017, Burr, the band, started out as an afterwork jam session at Belisle’s studio space in Central Falls. 

“We got the name Burr by trying to find a coffee term that sounded like a doom name,” said Enis. “We love our burr grinders and their ability to create a more narrow ‘particle distribution’ allowing the brewer to achieve a higher extraction with more sweetness when dialed in.”

Dantowitz played guitar in Tape Eater and other New Bedford punk and hardcore bands, Belisle set the drumbeat for the quirky mathrock of 14foot1 and lighter projects like Roz and the Rice Cakes, and Enis entered the University of Rhode Island as a jazz bass major and went on to make up half of the duo SONGS. After two years playing together as Burr, on the eve of Thanksgiving in 2019, they released their debut, Radial Alignment, on Bandcamp. With tracks like “Touch of Cream” and “Spent Grounds” teasing their careers in coffee, the band’s heaving instrumentals conjured raw notes of Pelican and Russian Circles. The Covid-19 landscape introduced a more serious edge to their songwriting. Six months into the throes of the pandemic, Burr returned to Big Nice Studio (25 Carrington St., Lincoln) where audio engineer Bradford Krieger refined a punishing single. Their latest release, a six-minute dirge on a split 7” with Don’t Grow Old, is now available from Philadelphia-based label, Nefarious Industries.

“We all were feeling tired, angry, anxious, frustrated, scared—” said Enis. “We hope that listeners can feel the trough of the pandemic and social issues in ‘Particle Distribution.’”

While Burr whirs through a penetrating doom, New Bedford’s Don’t Grow Old sound like they grew up on the blistering constraint of Botch and Jane Doe-era Converge. 
The idea for the joint project emerged after the bands shared a bill in New Bedford. A follow-up date at AS220 (115 Empire St., Providence) with Losst and Cyttorak fell victim to Covid-19 cancellations, but on October 16th the bands reunited for their record release party at ​​the Paradise McFee Gallery (104 William St, New Bedford). The following Monday morning, the members of Burr were back to the grind at Bolt.

Limited Edition Double Band Pairing

Burr and Don’t Grow Old’s split 7” is available as a limited release from Nefarious Industries