Providence is a thriving city for makers of all sorts. Here’s how they’re making the maker culture possible.
Anyone casually familiar with Providence knows that we are a city that prizes its arts and culture immensely, and one of the largest demographics to fall under that umbrella are our makers. From the jewelry industry we are so well known for, to furniture, handbags, ceramics, electronics, blacksmithing, print making and so much more, the maker movement that has been recently growing across the US has long had an established foothold in Providence, and it seems like new maker spaces are popping up left and right.
Some of these spaces are housed within or facilitated through educational nonprofit organizations like AS220, the Steel Yard and RISD’s continuing education department. Other entities like, RISCA and DESIGNxRI, offer grants to fund, foster and even mentor aspiring or established makers. Is that why and how Providence has managed to attract and retain so many talented craftspeople and artisans in what is known to be a struggling economy? Is it because of the nonprofit and other assistance available, or did the nonprofits spring out of the already existent culture? There may not be one definitive response, but through speaking to a few highly successful local makers, as well as several local nonprofit “creative incubators,” we found some similar theories crop up frequently.
The City itself is also very much aware of this aspect of our collective identity; on February 25, Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office organized an event at AS220 called “Providence: The Maker City” with a keynote speech by Matt Stinchcomb of the ETSY Foundation and brief panel talks with local leaders in the arts and food growing industries. We know that this movement is here to stay – but why is it here in the first place?
It’s in our DNA
Both figuratively in terms of our city and state history, and literally for those whose ancestors worked in factories and related professions: making things is in our genes. Providence is known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America, dating back to 1789 when ambitious businessman Samuel Slater broke export laws to bring Britain-monopolized manufacturing equipment plans and designs to the US. Thereafter referred to as “Slater the Traitor” in his hometown, he started Slater Mill in Pawtucket, choosing Rhode Island due to its lack of mandatory tithing and its status in the Triangle Trade. He worked with Moses Brown to replicate British designs, and in 1793 they opened their first factory. About 80 years later, Rhode Islander George Henry Corliss developed the Corliss steam engine – vastly improving existing steam engine technology and effectively starting the Steam Revolution. Corliss’s invention powered all of the machinery at the 1876 centennial exhibition located in Rhode Island, a forerunner of the World’s Fair. Providence became a hub of cotton, textile, jewelry and other manufacturing – one of the wealthiest cities in the country and even the world.
As we all know, it did not last forever. When the vast majority of American manufacturing transferred overseas, local economies were hit hard. For decades, hulking behemoths of old mills sat silent, rusting and decrepit memories of a bygone age.
In recent years, though, these mills are showing signs of new growth and life; some have been converted to high-end condos and apartments, but many are also now housing the same activity as their original incarnations did: human beings making things. Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village is a great example of an incubator for creative new businesses.
Another stunningly repurposed millspace is the Steel Yard on Sims Avenue, established in 2001 and which teaches classes in blacksmithing, welding, jewelry and ceramics, as well as offers weld-to-work training programs, residencies, workspaces, tools and more. Program Director Islay Taylor notes that she works in the same physical structure as her uncle did decades ago when the structure was the Providence Steel and Iron complex: ”It’s a different identity of work, but the same physical space and the shared goal of making things,” she says. Such stories come up frequently. This is Rhode Island, after all.
It’s Our Size
One attribute that was mentioned over and over is the state’s size and corresponding level of connection between individuals – the whole “know a guy” effect, as in, “You need someone who casts molds? I know a guy for you.” In this state, it often feels as if we are all connected by two, maybe three degrees of separation at most.
For many, the creative community in Providence also seems more welcoming and less competitive compared to other places. Is it because we’re all in a small sandbox and have learned to play nicely? Is it simply that we attract a different type of citizen – one who values community and creativity over glitz and fast-paced corporate culture? Even our few larger corporations seem to function more along the lines of the overall Providence ethos – Hasbro being an excellent example, employing countless artists and designers at its Pawtucket headquarters. Providence also benefits by having close proximity to larger cities such as Boston and New York City – with the major advantage of affordable living in a great location.
A Struggling Economy as a Positive?
Although there certainly are drawbacks to living in a state with a lackluster economy, there is also an obvious correlation between cost of living increases and creative individuals being forced to move out of areas where rents are rising due to gentrification. AS220, often seen as the frontrunner and gatekeeper to accessible, affordable arts and maker resources in the city, was founded by a group of artists in a small studio above PPAC with only $800 in 1985, because they couldn’t find truly accessible arts spaces and decided to create one for themselves. It’s easy to forget that when viewing it now as the massive entity it has become, with $25 million in real estate investment holdings downtown, but during the ‘80s, downtown Providence was so run down and crime-ridden that many avoided it entirely. Could something like AS220 have flourished in an area that was more structured and heavily regulated?
It is also worth placing Providence within a national context and looking at how the Trump administration might affect public funding for the arts. Many of our interviewees seemed to have faith that our state’s scrappy, gritty, resourceful spirit will see us through as it always has. Public funding is nice, but it certainly isn’t necessary to create. Randall Rosenbaum is Executive Director for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA), which awards grants to both nonprofits and individuals each year in 14 different categories including design innovation. He acknowledges that the current political climate is concerning, but that federal funds traditionally only make up 30% of RISCA’s grant budget anyway.
“We’re nervous every year about funding, period,” he says, “But our state has always been very supportive of the arts and culture and their value not just to the economy but also community. There’s a lot of local good will in what we do, and Governor Raimondo has also heavily supported the arts as well, so we’re not too worried.”
The RISD Factor
The historic heritage of Providence’s maker culture goes well beyond manufacturing and industry; many cited the Rhode Island School of Design as a beacon of creative success and worldwide esteem. The university’s excellence as an arts institution is undisputed, but it is worth noting that the school’s founding was funded by a group of progressive members from the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission in 1877 with a mission to bring the creation and appreciation of art and design to Providence and the greater community.
Talented designers flock to RISD, but what makes them choose to stay in Providence afterwards – a trend that has only increased substantially in the last six to eight years?
“It really speaks to collaboration: opportunities like shared studio spaces and artist collectives,” says Executive Director of RISD’s Continuing Education program Sarah Caggiano.
“Providence’s size fosters that type of sharing and being creative about questions like, ‘How do I get my business going? I don’t need an office for myself to do graphic design work, so what if I get together with other people to pool expenses and ideas?’”
RISD’s world-class continuing education department serves as a major stepping stone for those wishing to move into maker crafts or simply to dabble and explore. RISD was also an early proponent of changing “STEM” to “STEAM” in terms of our national education philosophy: putting art and design back into American teaching methods.
As valuable as it is having RISD right here, the university is far from the only game in town. AS220 boasts affordable workshops, classes and rentable machinery in many maker mediums. In recent years, through purchasing the Mercantile Block on Matthewson Street and establishing AS220 Industries, the nonprofit expanded its studis offerings – printmaking, darkroom photography and other more traditional visual arts – into technological mediums like laser cutting, 3D printing, a tech shop, “hacker space,” and more. To do this, they brought in Modern Device, which makes open source electronics solutions and kits.
Modern Device Lab Technician and Instructor Britton Kroessler says that “AS220 has played a role in a lot of peoples’ concepts of how to create a public maker space, since we were one of the first organizations to do it. People from all over regularly come in for tours and ask questions.” He notes that the space is very welcoming and that anyone interested should stop by and learn more or sign up for an upcoming workshop.
It’s also interesting to note that most of the nonprofits serving the maker community – AS220, the Steel Yard, RISD – were founded by artists and makers themselves. It’s not about nonprofits “serving” the artist community if those same nonprofits are largely comprised of artists themselves.
DESIGNxRI, which provides financial grants, education and mentorship programs to designers confirms it: “There are a lot of mid-career and seasoned designers, innovators and entrepreneurs in the field who really want to contribute to the next generation and fledgeling businesses,” says Executive Director Lisa Carnevale. “[Our] Design Catalyst grants are not only for startups; the idea is to really invest in these small micro-businesses that are innovation- and design-based. There’s a high potential that they could be really great impactors on the local economy, and we have so much knowledge here to share.”
For reasons that may be impossible to even define, Providence appears to have an almost magnetic pull for those who enjoy making things by hand. Some are returning to their birthplace or ancestral home; others make a move to a completely new city because it offers the type of collaborative, experimental environment and community expertise and support that they require to follow their passions.
Jeweler Jessica Ricci creates unique, vintage-inspired fine metal jewelry pieces using flea market finds and a method of casting she learned at a workshop while teaching English in Rome. Having never sculpted before, she suddenly discovered a new passion and returned home to Providence without even knowing how much of the old jewelry industry infrastructure still remained. She thumbed through the Yellow Pages and called up various jewelers wanting to learn more. Most welcomed her in and showed her around their workspaces.
“It was amazing to have so many resources at my fingertips; I could physically go from person to person,” says Ricci. “The goals here in Providence are different; here, you want to do what you want to do. No one really refers to themselves as artists or entrepreneurs, it’s just, ‘This is what I do.’ It’s the place where you live out your kooky fantasies, and you’re able to do it because everyone here knows each other and they’re willing to help you out. People are dedicated to their craft rather than making money or being part of an artsy scene, and they aren’t guarded; we have a village kind of mentality, but it’s also a village that gets the job done.”
Lindy McDonough is Creative Director for local fine handbag maker Lotuff Leather, located just up the street from the Steel Yard. Under her design guidance and commitment to in-house craftsmanship excellence, the company has been earning a reputation as the Hermes of the United States. Lotuff is now carried in expensive boutiques worldwide and department stores like Barneys, and has grown from three to nearly 20 employees in a span of three years. “I’m a product of RISD myself, and I actually returned to Providence after a stint in New York because I knew that I could be a part of something here that couldn’t exist elsewhere,” says McDonough. “It’s that brew of creativity and industry that fosters such a strong, unique and diverse maker community.”
It’s Part of a Larger Societal Trend
We’re focused on the local aspect, but a larger movement does appear to be happening in the US that values handmade, homegrown items more than in recent decades. Furniture and lighting designer Asher Dunn was one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 in 2014; the Michigan native founded Studio Dunn in Rumford after graduating with a degree in industrial design at RISD. While working on an undergraduate project, Dunn found he had exhausted the school’s resources in that specific area, and one of his professors suggested he look off-campus to local manufactures, which is where he first gained awareness of the infrastructure and capabilities in the area.
Although he could have started his operation in many other larger cities, he opted to stick around Providence due to the affordability, the already existing mill spaces and the level of remaining manufacturing expertise in the area – much of which has been lost over time. He values sustainability, craftsmanship and the sense of community and heritage existing locally in these trades, and regularly hosts the Woodworkers Guild of Rhode Island at Studio Dunn. He believes that the economic downfall in 2008 prompted a feeling of insecurity around the country, but that “When people feel insecure, they are more likely to make and build their own security and success.”
As far as the physical construction of objects: “I think there’s a value in the history, craftsmanship and story that goes with a product – not just how well it’s made or how beautiful it is, but actually having some backstory to it,” he says. Most of the furniture the studio designs and builds is meant to be long-lasting heirloom pieces focused on value, longevity, and waste reduction. Also, because so much knowledge has been lost, “Woodworking has never had the heightened perceived value that it does currently.”
Dunn’s most apt point also touches on the broadest issue relevant to this discussion: “It’s hard to be annoyed at your local area not succeeding if you’re buying everything from overseas.”
When Providence officially rebranded itself as “The Creative Capital” in 2009, the idea received mixed reviews, including some derision, but lately, we as a city seem to be genuinely embodying this title more and more. Knowing Rhode Island’s historical context in manufacturing, we clearly once had the chops to produce top-quality handmade and factory-produced items. Perhaps we’re simply returning to our roots and quietly calling like-minded folks to join us here.