Woonasquatucket River Shrine (2011)

Exhibited at Wooly Fair, The Steel Yard, Providence, RI, 30 July, 2011

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One summer afternoon, my daughter and I were walking along the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, an area dotted with nineteenth-century mills and wooden tenement houses, and cut through by service roads and railroad tracks.  It must have been a dry month. because somewhere along the river’s path beside a seldom-walked road, we spotted a patch of exposed riverbed stretching almost to the opposite banks.  An assortment of broken, half-discernible objects were protruding from the mud: part of a steering wheel, a rotting wallet, machine parts, and most of all, broken bottles scattered among shards of smoothed, patterned glass.  A few of the bottles bore the names of defunct cola companies like ‘Pequot,’ and others resembled medicine vials.  Soon after, we returned to the site with some buckets.  The exposed mud stank, and tiny shrimp-like creatures called “scud” teemed across the still-wet ground.  Only a little phased, we gathered as many artifacts as the buckets would hold, and hauled them over craggy rocks to the road above.

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a scud! courtesy of Wikipedia, and a photo of the Woonasquatucket River circa 2010.

Around the same time, I chanced upon an another curious object while on another long walk.  Laid against a dumpster behind RISD’s industrial design building, it was a three-dimensional cardboard model of Capital Center in Downtown Providence (that is, the roughly 50 acres of densely-built land between Providence Place Mall to the west and the convergence of the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Providence Rivers to the east, where stately prewar skyscrapers cast their shadows.)  Like a waifish child of Atlas, I carried the model home to my apartment and spray-painted it white the following day.

In Providence (along the very same Woonasquatucket River), there is a community metal works center called The Steel Yard.   It occupies an old industrial site ringed by  19th-century mills, and for years, it hosted an annual outdoor party called Wooly Fair.  The theme of that year’s fair was “To the Moon!,” and the grounds of the Steel Yard were transformed into something like a lunar colony.  Volunteers worked grueling hours to build a “space station” consisting of 21 pod-like enclosures that snaked across the central yard.  Organizers then assigned the pods to individual artists, who were free to adorn the pod interiors in whatever way.

My friend Natasha secured a pod on behalf of ‘Skull Kingdoms,’ an short-lived but fertile arts collective in which I played an occasional role.  From there, with no fixed plan or clear common vision, three of us had about 4 days to bring the space into being.  Natasha adopted one wall, my other friend took a second, and I a third.  The center space and dome we adorned in common with the help of my daughter India and her big sister Alina.

On my adoptive wall, I mounted the 3-D model of the city.  It hung weightlessly from intersecting beams, just above eye level where the wall curved to meet the pod’s domed ceiling.  I glued hundreds of bits of luminescent bluish car window glass into the miniature river, which then seemed to spill down from its impossibly celestial course and onto a ‘shrine’ at the base of the wall.  As shown in the picture, the shrine was a row of wine boxes painted white and arrayed with a selection of the bottles, stones, and other artifacts that we found along the riverbed just a short walk away from the Steel Yard grounds.  On the surface of the shrine table was an abalone shell.  It was positioned directly below the river’s path and received its waters (the bits of glass), which mixed inside the shell with a pool of red wine.  Wine and glass then spilled over the lip of the shell and soaked the riparian relics arrayed across the surface.  Natasha provided stick-on LED lights that illuminated the display from many angles.

I left a permanent marker on the wall beside the floating city, with a note inviting people to write whatever they wished across the blank spaces surrounding.  Lots of people did, including a slinky man in a green lizard costume who then sat quietly inside the pod for a good stretch of time.  By the end of the night, for most of which I was away, a dense constellation of text ringed the model city, and the space felt as if it were humming with a disembodied presence.

Natasha wrote about the Wooly Fair project and Skull Kingdoms on her own blog, which can be viewed by clicking here.