In Providence: A Paper Elephant

“Nobody can ever find the house. Back in the days before cell phones, I’d have to be on the landline for half the night talking to people calling in from pay phones. ‘No, you missed it. It’s the first right, then another right.’ Half of them would give up and go home. Once GPS and cell phones came around, we got pretty big pretty fast. Now I have to think a little harder about the guest list, because there’s too much stuff I don’t want to see go missing.”

Every first Saturday of the month, there’s a house nestled near the Roger Williams Park Zoo that opens its doors and lets people wander through one of its many decorated rooms. The house is owned by a lifelong Rhode Islander with a penchant for fanciful decor and a deep, abiding love for nature. In various rooms, there are books piled up to the point of toppling over. Quilts cover windows instead of curtains. Every table has three or four vibrant-looking dresses on it and at least one pair of shoes. The place exists on that fine line between charming and concerning.

“I found the house because I would go to the zoo with my sketchpad and I would draw and I would sit there on days when I could go, and one day, I pass by this house, and I thought it was just the perfect house for me, but I didn’t think I could afford it. Turns out the owner was in this big rush to sell, and I got it for nearly nothing. It was also falling apart, and it’s still falling apart. I had no interest in redoing anything but the foundation, because I didn’t want to wake up one night in the basement, but all the other cracks and scars I kept there, because I liked the character of the place. If something was really bad, I’d put a tapestry over it. I’d paint something and hang it up over the water stains on the walls or something. People would come over and I’d tell them to bring something I can put on the walls, and that’s when it started, with people coming over and all these things going up on the walls.”

These “things” include paintings, drawings, ripped paper with scribbling on them, words written on the walls themselves, splatter and photographs, and all of it seems to have no rhyme or reason, unless you’re the owner who says there is a strict set of criteria that long-term party guests know all too well.

“You can do whatever you want, but I hate anger and I hate war and I hate guns or just people being smart to look smart. I like beauty. I love beauty. I ask all the guests to keep it beautiful so all of this you see on the walls is beautiful. It’s a celebration of all things beautiful. For people — for a lot of the people that come here — that’s floral. That’s the ones in their lives that they love. Animals. A lot of animals. They’re inspired by how close we are to the zoo and they want this to be their museum. I was doing installation before a lot of other people. This whole house has become an installation.”

It’s true that it’s hard to picture anyone really living in the house. When I visited, there seemed to be only one bathroom and none of the rooms had beds or anyplace to sit that wasn’t makeshift. I crouched on a pedestal and watched the owner describe all the different paper birds hanging from the ceiling.

“When we filled up the walls in here, somebody got a ladder — I don’t remember who it was — they got a ladder and they started hanging these little birds and I just loved that. Now you walk in here, you think you’re in an aviary. Some are hung very low and some are just a few inches down from the ceiling, and so it creates this magical experience when you walk in and you think– It reminds me of hair and I love feeling it brush against my face when I walk through it. It’s really nice, but some people are skittish and they don’t like this room at all. They go in the room next door with the paper elephant.”

If you’re never seen a paper elephant, you’re probably trying to imagine one right now, and I can assure you, it’s even grander than it sounds. The artist used paper of every pattern, and so the effect is psychedelic and strong, even though a lit match would reduce it to ash in a matter of minutes. That’s why there are candles surrounding it.

“I want to remind people that strength is an illusion. I only light the candles during the party and I keep a jug of water nearby just in case. I’m not trying to kill anyone — or myself. I just like what it represents when all the candles are lit around it. People think it’s spiritual. It can be spiritual. If that’s what you want it to be. It can be whatever you want.”

Watching the guests enter and move about the house this past Saturday, I was struck by how upscale the whole evening seemed. I pictured it being a ragtag group of artists conducting something akin to a sit-in, but people showed up in suits and dresses, and caterers were on-hand to give out small black plates with finger foods on them. Jazz music played throughout the house, and in the room with the paper elephant, a couple discussed, at length, which European country they should move their annual vacation to now that Italy seemed unwise.

On my way out, I bumped into the owner and gave them something of an apology for assuming that they were some kind of hoarder when here I was surrounded by glitterati. They laughed and then refused my apology.

“Because you weren’t wrong. I have much too much. It’s just how things look in the daylight. You kept coming by in the daytime when the house is a real mess. I know it’s a mess. Somebody taught me a long time ago that if you light your home just right, it’ll look like a million bucks, and that’s what I do. I’m very careful with the lighting, because with everything I have — with all my things — you have to light them and then you can create all these beautiful shadows which make everything — and the house itself — look very expensive. It’s all garbage though, Kevin. Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s garbage. But it’s well-lit garbage. When you take control of the lighting in a given space, you realize you have complete control over what they see or don’t see and how they see it, which is just as important. I’m telling you, it’s not about what you have, it’s about how you light it.”

They had to get back to the party. Someone wanted to add a new painting to a room upstairs and the owner had to give their approval. I never made it upstairs to see the painting, but the owner called me later to say that it was mostly red with a few green leaves along the top, and that it was beautiful. The room is already running out of wall space, as is the rest of the house, but that didn’t stop the owner from hanging up the painting. 

After all, you can never have too much beauty.