A Divine Showing of the Heart of Providence

Bert Crenca has been one of those larger-than-life personalities who has helped define the texture, flavor, and personality of the creative capital for as long as most Rhode Islanders can remember.

The founder of internationally renowned art community AS220, Crenca “retired” from the organization shortly before COVID struck, to finally focus on the artwork that drove him to found the org in the first place. I put quotes around retirement, because the creative iconoclast has been producing art at a furious pace and shows no signs of slowing. His most recent project, Divine Providence, recently had a show at the WaterFire Arts Center with well over 200 finely detailed paintings on display. The work was arranged in the gallery, in precise alignment that created the sensation you were looking out onto the city through giant paned windows – except every pane revealed an entirely different, intimate view of some everyday facet of the city. These photorealistic yet still painterly pieces, with subtly enhanced colors, form a visual love letter to the city. These aren’t the rusted-up bridge or the superman building, these are three-families on Fed Hill and bodegas in Olneyville. As one attendee at a recent talkback told Crenca, “You make the mundane miraculous.”

Crenca did a number of talk-backs over the run of the show, and Motif was able to capture one of these near the end of the run. The show is down now, but you can follow Crenca’s work and catch future shows by following @umberto_crenca. 

For the complicated, precise hanging of over two hundred pieces, Crenca discloses there were, “At least 40 iterations of the layout for the show. I couldn’t be happier with their efforts,” a fact consistently in evidence as Crenca jumps around the room to draw attention to various aspects of various pieces. Gallery curator and WaterFire founder Barnaby Evans can be spotted quietly and precisely straightening hangings in Crenca’s wake.

“When I first walked in, on the first day, I got teary eyed. I was really, really, really emotional when I saw it. I tried to walk out, and Barnaby grabbed me and we sat down. It was almost impossible to describe the feelings I had when I saw it done, and done with such care.”

Crenca can hold an audience’s attention for hours, between his candid commentary and authentic enthusiasm, and he energetically encourages questions of all sorts. When asked, “Why Providence?” He responded at length: “I saw so many of my friends save up to go to NY or Boston and a few months later come back completely broke, and I thought, why not just make the scene here? And I’m not the first and I wasn’t the only, but that was the idea behind what became AS220. We started in an abandoned building in Providence, and it was the perfect sort of place.

“We started making noise, and the word spread. People want to see what’s going on in Providence – what’s the noise about?”

And why this particular project? “In 1982, I was in a three-family on Federal Hill. I had just gotten divorced, I had nothing; for the first time in my life I had no job and no income. And I was looking out the window. I’m looking at rooftops and all these geometric shapes all piled on top of each other. I did a series of paintings of that.” The work made it into a now-gone Federal Hill gallery almost right away. “Someone bought the whole set, and wanted to remain anonymous. Which was fantastic, but there was no documentation or anything – I was just starting out. So I don’t know where they went, and that’s sat in the back of my head for 40 years. So all I have from that is memory.

“I wanted to revisit that inspiration. I retired from AS220 and I wanted to find a new way to ‘love the city.’ that popped right into the front of my mind.

“The first couple of pictures [in the new series] were right out my window. I figured, start with what you know. They were a little more congested, a little more about the shapes. And then the narrative began to reveal itself. It became clear to me – it was really a pedestrian perspective I was looking for. There was the bodega. When I grew up in this town there were all these little storefronts. And they died or went away. But now, there are all these new immigrant groups, and they’re setting up their own stores and their own thing. And what is that new, evolving narrative?” That’s what Crenca is exploring.

Why such a photorealistic approach? “I didn’t want the hand of the artist to be between the subject and the viewer. I wanted that pedestrian perspective — for the viewer to feel like they are standing there,” he says, stroking his pharaohic white beard.

A few of the works were commissions. “I did paintings for the police chief in Central Falls – Colonel Roberson – he drove me around… driving around Central Falls in a car with the police chief is a hoot, let me tell you!” But most of them were simply tableaus that appealed to the artist’s eye. “I love walking through Providence,” he explains.

What changed over the course of the many paintings making up the project? “It got a little easier. “I started seeing everything through the constraints I’d chosen. Like, this shape – this shape is not an accident. Horizontal doesn’t resonate with me — it’s too grounded. I had to decide what the format would be, and then everything about how I looked at the city was framed that way.” (“The ratio of my phone is not exactly the aspect ratio of the paintings. So I always give myself room. I don’t let what’s in the camera shot dictate what will be in the painting,” he later explained, discussing how he doesn’t paint on the site, but takes multiple photos that serve as guides for the studio painting.)

“Even though it started getting easier, I started taking on harder subjects. Like all the work I did that includes graffiti. That’s a lot of detail. At one point, I was walking around the city and a skateboarder passed, pierced in all the places you can be pierced, and he stopped and gave me a shout out, ‘I gotta tell you, what you are doing is legit.’” he recounts, with the strongest of local accents. The skateboarder was also a tagger and street artist, and said many in that community was aware of what Crenca was working on. 

Crenca got an instagram message from a friend who knew a street artist whose work was in one of the cityscapes. “He told that friend, ‘This is wack,’ and since it came from the graffiti artist who made it, I went back and looked at it closer, and fixed it. Because the work is numerous – it’s not just about me. I’ve got to take responsibility for this. The gesture with the spray can is so pure – you can’t always get that with a little brush on a canvas. But I wanted to get it right.”

Returning to what makes the subject matter meaningful to him, Crenca rounded out the talk discussing what makes PVD special. “Every city has its own thing, and Providence has this earthy, working class grit. Post-industrial chaos energy. Mill housing. Repurposing. Everything keeps reverberating back. This building was a rubber factory,” he gestures around the WaterFire space. 

What makes it the perfect city to be called a creative capital? He addresses “Affordability, accessibility, scale,” and one more thing – “Community. For my work at AS220, I got a lot of attention – but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking for community. For people who could share these crazy ideas and these thoughts that you would never find in corporate America, or at the BBQ behind the white picket fences. I found that here.”

At the end of the talk, two audience members reveal themselves as local graffiti artists whose work appears on walls captured in Crenca’s work. “Really!? That’s great! How did I do?” He asks. “You did good,” they agree. “See, I told you I had street cred!” He declares. In a room full of mostly-sold paintings, he clearly takes the greatest joy from this – a shared reflection of creative content with other artists just doing their thing in Providence.