The route to the Public Gallery winds through a pretty rough neighborhood – the streets of Olneyville are lined with pawnbrokers, flea markets and head shops; an old woman waves down cars near a stop light, peddling flowers. But along with the obvious signs of poverty, there are signs of strength. A poster on a hardware store reads: “Community is stronger than hate.” There is truth to be found here, and a beauty that is born of the struggle. A new art scene is growing, and Public Gallery is one of the primary incubators.
A huge painting just inside the front door makes the intent of co-owners Casandra Inez and Spocka Summa crystal clear: “Public: a space that welcomes all members of the community.” There is something for literally everyone; I can imagine families with their children here along with the art crowd. The atmosphere is fresh, full of color and surprises. Hip-hop lives alongside whimsy and traditional skills. Soft sculptures of fantasy creatures hang from the ceiling and a book corner in the front room is lined with illustrated works that are a mix of both independent authors and commercial titles. In the second room, a translucent glass panel invites the imagination – it’s easy to believe that this is a portal into space and time. In fact, the architects who own the building are on the other side, and it is they whom we have to thank for the beautifully finished, clean lines of the gallery. When Spocka and Casandra opened their doors on Sept. 7, 2019, the space was a white walled garden, just waiting for their vision to grow.
There are no application fees for artists looking to show, and the gallery commission is extremely user-friendly, with Public allowing a full 70% profit for exhibitors. Four exhibiting artists are rotated every month, and, as Spocka puts it, “each wall is its own experience.” Artists are not expected to stick to any genre or theme, yet somehow, it all works together. The shows are beautifully curated and choreographed, with the impact of each artist featured, yet somehow melding with the whole. In the shop section, where eight to 12 artists and merchants sell their wares at any given time, each station is unique. A collection of hand-painted lighters under glass seems at first to be a standing sculpture and it is a surprise to find that the individual items are for sale.
The work here is fresh, vigorous, often unexpected. One section featured a graffiti-like mural – was it a permanent display in the gallery? “No,” Casandra told me. “It changes every two months.” On this evolving legal wall, there is no tagging or clipping. As each mural is painted over, a creation by an emerging artist grows in its place.
Perhaps one of the reasons the gallery thrives is that the owners are not new to the neighborhood. Spocka lives up the street. He knows these people. He is part of the local music scene and also has a business degree from URI. One of his priorities is “to get the artist PAID.” Spocka and Casandra opened this business together and they manage it all. The two met in high school about 15 years ago in Providence. Casandra is, in fact, a high school teacher herself now. Their combined energy has resulted in an innovative and interactive melting pot, and the installation corner of the shop area is an example of their synergy in collaboration. Here, visitors can leave their own messages on the wall and there are plans to turn the notes into a book for visitors to read.
Public is more than a gallery for display. Workshops are offered for those who want to learn new skills, both artistic and practical. Zine making and Sketchbook Church trade turns with Zero Waste for the environment and a First Time Home Buyers class. Community grows here – a Women’s Circle meets monthly and a writer’s group gathers every two weeks. Public has hosted a DJ/music producer workshop, and culinary events and dinners pop up along with spontaneous art. There are often live performances, with comedy, music and spoken word; short films are screened here. New ideas and voices are always welcome.
In February, four new artists and nine new vendors will be coming in. Warning: Public’s creative concoctions are addictive and may leave you craving more. Luckily, you need only wait a month – the next opening is on Sat, Mar 7, from 6 – 9pm at 1 Aleppo St, PVD. For more info on upcoming events, visit Public’s website at publicshopandgallery.com, and follow @publicNotprivate.