Good Trouble: The Womxn Project mixes art with activism in their latest installation series

Photo Credit: Sara Archandbow

Art + Activism = artivism. And these artivists are coming from The Womxn Project, a non-profit organization focused on building a feminist, community-based movement to further human rights. Their form of artivism is to display words on businesses around Rhode Island to send a message – one that the community is feeling and one that others need to hear. 

The Womxn Project hosted their first artivism display piece in 2018. Their goal? To bring an immediate recognition to inaction with a “big, non-intrusive response.” Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, says of the project’s beginnings, “We did it because we wanted to make a big splash that also invited folks who would be running the event to say a few words. It was a one-two punch. We organized it in less than 48 hours. We are a bunch of artists and know of this model [of art] happening for the last 20 years in the art world and beyond.”

These projected messages have returned in 2020, in response to the seemingly insurmountable social injustice happening in our country. The Womxn Project board member and artist Beth Bell says, “The projections bring the issues that our community is facing in Rhode Island directly to people’s backyards. Sometimes politics can seem like an abstract that is happening in the State House. But we can take these messages and project them on a beloved building or space that makes it more personal. Art has that power, to hit you in a more emotional, impactful way that makes you stop and pay attention for a minute.” And really, who isn’t going to stop to see giant words projected onto a building? The art is beautiful and loud, and it says exactly what it needs to. 

A few of this summer’s installations include one at the Black Lives Matter rally, where The Womxn Project and the Democratic Women’s Caucus displayed multiple sayings on the front of the State House, including “WHITE PEOPLE – DO SOMETHING.” Additionally, the artivists were seen at House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s office in Cranston, where the words “WHITE SILENCE – VIOLENCE” and “PRIVILEGE IS POWER, USE YOURS TO END RACISM,” were projected onto the outer walls of his office building after the speaker claimed on the radio that he was unsure if slavery existed in Rhode Island. The Womxn Project also projected a record of slaves from Rhode Island onto the wall. This summer had Daria-Lyric Montaquila reading Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” at Linden Place Mansion in Bristol, and Tammy Brown reading “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” on July 4 at DeWolf Tavern in Bristol. Videos of these performances are on The Womxn Project’s website, and I suggest you watch them.

Where does the art come from? Beth had this to say: “We started with one projector and a generator, and we are now upping our game by adding more teams and projectors so we can have a bigger impact throughout the state. Depending on the event, we mostly create our own imagery unless we are there to support another organization, like we did for the Dyke and Trans POC March and Vigil. We were there to amplify their voice and message, as allies.” 

There are additional installations planned for the summer (and hopefully beyond) through The Womxn Project. Your voice matters, and The Womxn Project is making sure the needs of the community (and country) are being heard.

To get involved, follow them on Instagram (@thewomxnprojecthq) or Facebook (Facebook.com/TheWomxnProjectHQ) or reach out to them via their website. Please note that the projections and artivism activities are typically not posted about in advance, get in touch if you want to help. 




Summer in the City

PVDFest is an annual event that typically transforms The Creative Capital into a boisterous celebration of art and culture. Unfortunately, the dumpster fire that is 2020 necessitated its cancellation this summer. But PVDFest’s commitment to public art hasn’t wavered. People out taking a socially distanced stroll through the city’s streets might have noticed three pieces of PVDFest-commissioned art pop up this season: “Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground,” by Jerold Ehrlich; “Bee Violet,” by Allison Newsome and Deborah Spears Moorehead; and “Dream Weave,” by Karin Giusti. These pieces will be on display until fall. For more information, go to pvdfest.com/public-art




My Rhode Island: Photographer and physician Howard Schulman discusses his exhibit

We spoke with Howard Schulman, MD, whose photography show, My Rhode Island, is currently on exhibit at BankRI in downtown Providence through September.

Cathren Housley (Motif): Which came first, the photographer or the doctor?

Howard Schulman: As far as composing pictures and capturing things I’ve seen, that was definitely something that started after I became a physician. I started putting up photographs in my waiting room and got positive feedback from unassuming patients. I had my first show at AS220 in 1999. Since, I’ve done about four shows on my own, a couple other small group shows and about seven multi-artist shows. 

CH: What inspired you to begin taking pictures?

HS: I’m a curious person and do a lot of wandering around. When I came to Rhode Island, I thought the whole place was gorgeous. That’s what inspired me – and having a camera with me to record where I go and what I’m seeing is a natural fit for my lifestyle. If I do too much photography, it loses its fun, so it’s usually something that goes along with me when I am traveling or hiking or hanging out at a really cool place and exploring. 

CH: Did you have any formal education in photography? 

HS: After starting out, I did read or browse through a book or two and even tried a continuing education course at RISD, but I think my focus was mostly on trying to understand the mechanics – what the camera could do and how I could capture what I was seeing. The advice on photography I remember best was from Berge Zobian, owner of Gallery Z and a professional portrait photographer. He told me to aim down a little bit more and capture more foreground. It was always a fight, how much foreground to capture in landscape pictures, but Berge made me aware of it in a different way.

After I developed my own process and style I started looking at other photographers, known artists. I wanted to try and understand why people appreciated their work – why did viewers take a second look at a photograph after passing it; why did a person linger in front of a certain piece? To me, it’s always fun to spend time thinking about it. Clearly, some photographs work and others don’t – trying to capture whatever that is, is always a struggle.

CH: What other photographers do you like? 

HS: I own photographs by Herb Ritts and Josef Karsh; I also like Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon. I love looking at ancient photographs over 100 years old in museums, and I’m fascinated by photographs taken of people at the beginning of photograph, from 1840 through 1860. I’ve traveled all over the United States and the world for 25 years and always I’ve gone to the museums and outdoor art fairs wherever I went, so I’ve seen a lot. On Instagram, I like looking at other Rhode Island photographers. I appreciate other people’s black and white photographs, although for my photographs I strongly prefer color. I almost can’t imagine myself taking black & white photographs.

CH: What kind of equipment do you use?

HS: Up until a couple years ago when the digital cameras became good enough, I really loved my Pentax 67 camera, medium format. The negatives were five times the size of a regular 35mm camera and held detail in bigger enlargements. Now the digital cameras can handle that and there’s something new called RAW image format, which does a job in conjunction with the computer. With film, I had always had problems with content getting hidden by dark areas and washed out in others. With this technology, I’m able to capture what I’m looking at. 

CH: You had a show at BankRI with an opening planned for March 17 on Gallery Night. What happened?

HS: Before the reception, I had a strong hunch a lockdown was going to happen. It was just a question if my show would open before it did. I had already invited about everyone I knew, and Gallery Night had already arranged for a musician, food and publicity. But honestly, as a physician in the middle of the pandemic, there was so much else on my mind that the cancellation of a show that I had worked a year on and had waited over five years for, felt like a passing thought and not a major letdown. 

BankRI is currently open by appointment only; the show will remain until September. For a video walk through, visit https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BOVhNnl1AJE




Ecstatic Ekphrastic

Public art is meant to inspire conversation, and What Cheer Writers Club and The Avenue Concept recently teamed up to formalize that exchange in an event called Ecstatic Ekphrastic. The two arts organizations selected four pieces of Avenue Concept-installed art — “Condemned” by Richard Goulis, “Misty Blue” by Andrew Hem, “Night Flight” by Lauren YS and “The Revolution Starts in the Earth with the Self” by Jess X. Snow — then What Cheer Writers Club members were tasked with creating poems, essays or communal texts in response to the pieces chosen.

Writers who submitted work in July were entered into a random drawing for the opportunity to read their work at a virtual showcase that will be held Aug 13. For more information, go to whatcheerclub.org/ecstatic-ekphrastic




Very Good Boys

It was a love of animals that inspired Susan Joseph to found the New England Humane Society in 2013. Since then, Joseph has gathered a group of dedicated workers who share her mission: to rescue animals from euthanasia at overcrowded facilities and to care for abandoned and homeless animals in need until they find their forever homes. The organization has already created a network of foster homes throughout Northern RI, and in September 2020, they will be opening their new shelter in Cumberland. Visitors who arrive here will feel instantly welcomed – Joseph has made certain of that with a large-scale mural that reflects the warmth and spirit of those who work here.

“I was looking for something to add to the facility that would make it our own … I also wanted something that would make people smile and just feel good. That is the theme for our new space,” said Joseph. She had seen The Avenue Concept’s works throughout Providence and loved what they did. When she reached out, her enthusiasm was catching: for their first mural project of the summer, The Avenue Concept asked artist Joanna Vespia to create a mural for the N.E. Humane Society shelter.

How did the COVID-19 restrictions affect operations for Joseph and her crew? “Throughout the pandemic, we have held very steady,” she said. The facility has made modifications to their pickup procedures as well as their meet and greet policies. Joseph was encouraged by the public’s response: “The pandemic has actually boosted the number of people wanting to adopt and foster. Many shelters throughout the country have been emptied for the first time in their history. It’s a silver lining in these otherwise unfortunate times.”

For updates and photos, visit facebook.com/NewEnglandHumaneSociety and their website at newenglandhumanesociety.com




Functional Art on Empire Street: PVDFest sculpture installation encourages socially distant viewing

“Bee Violet” is an outdoor art installation on PVD’s Empire Street that was created by Allison Newsome and Deborah Spears Moorehead. Its patented design, a symbolic metal fish combined with a growing vegetable garden, redefines what is possible aesthetically and environmentally with art. 

“It was made on a wing and a prayer,” says Newsome, referencing the difficulties COVID-19 posed while creating this sculpture-and-garden set that contains a message of self-reflection and a call for change. The sculpture, along with two others commissioned as part of this year’s unfortunately cancelled PVDFest, was installed this season.

Its engineering matters as much as its aesthetic allure. “Bee Violet” is frog green with a lilypad-shaped canopy on top. Its cylindrical body is embellished in fish repoussé with luscious fuchsia petals underneath. While the aluminum sculpture easily attracts the eye, its designed purpose is to attract water.

“I have two patents for ‘Bee Violet,’” Newsome says, “which is the most you can get for one thing. I have a utility patent for the rain chain and a design patent for the petals.” Here’s how it works: raindrops gather in the canopy and are funneled through the cylindrical body, the rain chain. The petals draw in more water at the base of the rain chain and what is collected gets stored inside the flowerpot base. “For 1 inch of rain, it holds 50 gallons of water,” says Newsome, who called this process “rain harvesting” and the structure a “rain keep.” 

Highlighting the connection between New England’s conservation efforts and its Native American ancestry, artist and painter Deborah Spears Moorehead drew illustrations from an Indigenous creation story, which Newsome translated into aluminum repoussé with help from her teacher in Thailand. “They were all so curious about the creation story. They wanted to know every detail,” said Newsome about explaining the sculpture to her teacher’s family.

The story involves Sky Woman, who sits on a tree branch in the universe and wonders what lies in the “puddle below.” Caught up in her curiosity, she falls and animals (such as squirrels and frogs) try to stop her fall by creating various things until they create Earth to catch her. 

A key detail in this story that is reflected in the sculpture is that Sky Woman is nine months pregnant. There is a garden next to the double-patented rainkeep where The Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — grow, contained in a giant basket handwoven by Spears Moorehead. This trio traditionally planted together is a key part of sustainable farming and it starts with burying seeds in a soil mound that is the size of a nine-months pregnant belly.

In her sculpture, Newsome echoed the garden’s tenderness for the earth. She used powerwash, an eco-friendly coloring for metal. Unlike most rain barrels sold at local hardware stores, Newsome’s rainkeep is made from aluminum. “The rain barrels at the store are typically plastic,” she says. “Even if they look like clay, that’s actually just an epoxy. And this plastic wears down in the sun. You have to think about what will happen to them in 10 years.” 

The underlying message of “Bee Violet” is togetherness despite distances, and with plenty of space surrounding it, the piece empowers socially distanced viewers to carefully study its visual details, eco-engineering, story representations and ultimately, humanity.

View the installation at 444 Westminster Street through the fall. For more information on this and the other sculptures installed by PVDFest, go to pvdfest.com/public-art




Writing on the Wall

After a June night of violence in PVD, many downtown business owners covered their surviving windows with plywood to protect them from being broken during anticipated protests. Local artists beautified the display by using the panels as blank canvases where portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and messages of peace and justice emerged. The protests were peaceful and the panels unnecessary, but the art remains. They’re now displayed on Eddy Street, just across from the Biltmore Garage, where passersby can witness their messages.

Photo credit: Tess Lyons; art by @twobirds.Art, @diaryofaquarantinedartist, @coleseyeview, @mister.diablo, @_Happysloth_, @tattoovandal, @lunabadoula, @lizzysour, @96CYRI, @so.Roni, @naturalsnatural,  @lucidTraveler_Art, @joselin_0321, @Escoky, @_happysloth_, @brooxana,  @shelaughsxo, @martin_p292




Do Si Do: Artist Christine Cho explores internal conflict in her work

“Do Si Do,” by Christine Cho

Christine Cho is interested in “the power of the collective (people and images) and performativity’s relation to personal and historical narratives.” There is no doubt that Christine’s work is in conversation with what it means to be visible — the two characters in “Do Si Do” confront the viewer with direct eye contact, and one even holds the viewer at gunpoint. But Christine’s work goes beyond just acknowledging the viewer. It also requires the viewer’s response to the questions she poses about performance and reality in relation to the United States and South Korea.

The painting’s title, “Do Si Do,” refers to a square-dancing call, a circular movement in which two people walk around each other. Square-dancing has long been associated with the romanticization of cowboys and the “Old West.” In “Do Si Do,” the idea of circling around one another is not unlike a “Wild West” showdown, in which two gunslingers “face off” and duel. This Americana act of dueling to establish dominance over another creates two characters: “the opponent” and “the hero.” The hero character, the “White American” (cowboy) is central to upholding the fragile American consciousness and creating the idea of an “other.” The “Korean Cowgirl” in “Do Si Do” is a character that Christine developed in response to her childhood experiences of being born and raised in Houston, Texas.

In her decision to appear twice on the canvas, Christine references the duality (or multiplicity) of intersectional identities, which often manifests through the practice of code–switching. The Christine on the left seems to represent the passive, or perhaps complacent performance expected of an Asian appearing woman in everyday American society, versus, the Christine on the right who fights this reality as an Asian American woman. In “Do Si Do,” Christine uses her own life to threaten the viewer to interrupt her internal conflict. Christine asks us to confront this reality and hold ourselves accountable for it.

Christine challenges the Western canon of art, specifically the genre of oil painting, which has been exalted in the United States as a high medium of “Western Art.” In reappropriating the imagery of women artists like Maria Lassnig and Alice Neel, Christine calls out the histories of white feminism in the United States that have continually failed to make space for those at the intersections of minority populations.

Artist and activist Skye Volmar reminds us too that “although non-black people of color are working to untangle that history, black femmes bear the biggest burden of that marginalization.” Skye explains that both historically and presently, the United States inflicts oppression and violence through the colonial erasure of the intersectional narratives “of all marginalized folx at all intersections of ability, class, gender, sexuality and race.” Here it upholds singular definitions of Western classical and contemporary art. Painting allows Christine to develop her own visual language in order to better understand and combat these notions of performativity, and how they relate to her everyday experiences as a Korean American. Christine explains, “In these constructed painterly spaces, I am able to reimagine and play out realities that center myself. I do not have to justify my right to belong and can invite others who identify with the work, to imagine themselves inhabiting these spaces as well. The work is an extension of my body — tangible moments with physical presence that stand in my place when I am not present.”

Christine Cho is a Korean American artist and curator from Houston, Texas. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2019, where she earned a BFA in painting and is currently working and living in Providence. In January, Christine will travel to South Korea on a Fulbright US Student Grant to further investigate the relationship between visibility, performance and South Korea’s traditional uses of mediums through painting. In her own words, Christine Cho dreams of “reimagining the future with friends and wants to better understand people through their narratives.” For more images of Christine’s work, visit her website: christinehcho.com




Real Help for Real Artists: MassMoCA workshops help artists thrive

The toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on our economy has been as debilitating as the disease itself, and some of the hardest hit were those who worked in creative fields. As the shut downs began, performance artists watched bookings disappear, teaching artists saw workshops and residencies cancelled, galleries were forced to close their doors, and conferences and sales were put on hold. Fortunately, immediate help came from unexpected places – in a rare legislative move, freelance artists were qualified for both unemployment benefits and small business loans. In an additional show of support, the RI Artists Relief Fund was set up to make grants available to the arts community. This short-term assistance was a godsend, but now artists are faced with the same dilemma all businesses and workers are: How do we all adapt our methods to this “new normal”? It is here that Assets for Artists, a program branch of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), has stepped up to the plate. 

MASS MoCA, now the largest non-profit art center in the country, is set on 16 acres of grounds in North Adams, Massachusetts. Originally a textile and print factory, the complex evolved over the years into 26 buildings and a maze of interlocking courtyards and passageways rich with historical association. Throughout its history it has been a place where new ideas thrived, with people seeking the most advanced knowledge and technology available. That spirit of innovation has continued into its present day incarnation as a creative hub, and Assets for Artists is a prime example of thinking outside the box to address the real world needs of artists today.

I spoke with director Blair Benjamin, who filled me in on their program and the pivot it has taken since the coronavirus lock down. He gave me some background first. Assets for Artists was founded on the belief that artists provide great value to our communities and are key contributors to helping economies to thrive. To that end, the classes and seminars have offered support artists need to advance the business and financial goals of their practice. This is a hard fact that is too often left out of the creative curriculum – artists have to make a living like everyone else. The Assets program has helped them to do just that, with professional development workshops and multi-level financial and business coaching that enables artists to build a sustainable economic future. Thanks to MASS MoCA’s sprawling campus, Assets for Artists has been able to offer a residency program, The Studios at MASS MoCA, that gives visiting artists from around the globe much needed time and space for their own creative development. 

When the COVID pandemic hit, the program shifted to adapt – live workshops became virtual classrooms and the seminars focused on the new challenges artists are facing in a post-pandemic world. A whole new line-up of free finance and business webinars for artists in CT, MA & RI was posted May 10, including new offerings in English and Spanish, all designed to help artists step into the next phase of economic recovery and hit the ground running.

The myth of the starving artist is one that Assets for Artists wants to dispel. Artists have always been innovators, perhaps because they have been left out of the support that is afforded for other small businesses. But in our new normal, the time is ripe for creative thinkers to establish themselves as a solid force in economic growth. 

For more on Assets for Artists, visit their website at assetsforartists.org. Current offering highlights can be seen at assetsforartists.org/news. All available webinar trainings are listed at assetsforartists.org/blog/2020/4/6/a4a-webinars-for-a-post-covid-world-zkylb. Classes fill up fast, and workshop space is limited, so don’t wait.




Sculpture on the Lawn: Bristol Art Museum features a walking tour of art

Bristol Art Museum recently unveiled an outdoor exhibit featuring works by artists Michael Cochran, Mike Hansel, Rob Lorenson, Paul Menensis, Matt Noiseux, Derek Riley and Mark Wholey. These works appear along Hope Street in Bristol on the lawns of Colt School, Linden Place and the Bradford-Dimond-Norris House.

Guest curator Rob Lorenson, who organized the exhibit, said, “With the closure of institutions of art as part of social distancing, public art has a role to play in availability. Outdoor sculpture is always available and in spaces that are conducive to social distancing. In this exhibit you don’t even need to get out of your car to enjoy the artwork. Over the duration of the exhibit and multiple encounters – a real relationship with the artwork can form.”

Interested art lovers are invited to view the works by car or by taking a stroll down Hope Street. They will remain on display through Labor Day. For more information, go to bristolartmuseum.org