Comics, Costumes, & Candles: The Makings of History at the Providence Public Library

By Angela DiVeglia

Providence_Sunday_Wipeout
The Providence Sunday Wipeout

A spooky scented candle. A black-and-white photograph of a man emerging, phantom-like, from a cloud of steam. A hand-drawn word search. An enormous chromolithograph of the puppet-like false head of a pre-Incan mummy. A screen-printed, articulated paper robot with chicken legs.

 

This unlikely assemblage, holding court with dozens of other colorful items in glass-sheathed museum cases at the Providence Public Library in Providence, RI, tells a larger story about the library’s approach to visual research, collaboration, research-based art, and the role of historic collections in a digital world. Juxtaposing old and new, source material and derivative product, our current exhibit is the culmination of more than six months of creative collaboration between the library and local artists, makers, and library users.

How Did This Happen?

How did the Library get our (collective, bibliophilic) hands on so much research-based and collections-based art?

Funereal_candle
Scented candle by Burke and Co., bearing an image from an 18th century French funeral invitation (seen in background)

Some of the items–such as futuristic fashions on miniature dress forms–were created during library programming, as part of our annual exhibition and program series; others–such as an illustrated series of rainbow portals bursting forth from household objects–came from independent artists who frequent our Special Collections; and the majority–such as a comic strip featuring 19th century German geologists Wilhelm Reiss and Alphons Stübel–stemmed from our annual Creative Fellowship.

The Creative Fellowship offers funding and support for a local artist to perform research in our Special Collections and to create new, derivative work. Our 2016 Creative Fellow, Walker Mettling, a Providence-based storyteller, illustrator, and one of the forces behind the Providence Comics Consortium, went above and beyond in creating and instigating a veritable avalanche of artwork. Walker spent months combing through Special Collections, occasionally honing in on certain gems (scrimshaw featuring a stylish lady, etching of a bear getting stabbed in the mouth, distressing-by-modern-standards book of nursery rhymes). Some of these discoveries led to new illustrations from Walker’s hand, while others became “research assignments” that he created for local artists, asking them to visit Special Collections, view a designated item or items, and then to use that research as the basis for a new comic or illustration.

Walker consolidated the products of these assignments into a tremendously large-format, color (risograph!), Special Collections-themed comics newspaper called The Providence Sunday Wipeout, which was released during a storytelling event at the library. After the release, he collected drafts, notes, color separations, and other documentation of his and his artists’ processes.

Comics_case
Comics – Close-up view of some items in an exhibit case on the first floor of the library, showing drafts of comics, color separations, and layout notes for The Providence Sunday Wipeout comics newspaper

In each of our cases during this exhibition, we juxtapose historic and contemporary objects in the hopes of capturing both the research and artistic processes, both inspiration and derivation. While research-based art can breathe new life into research materials, our hope is that by illuminating both process and product across time, we’re also tapping into the human-ness of the creators and the ways in which we relate to and interact with archival objects.

Why Research-based Art?

The city of Providence is creatively fertile, and the library, in its central location, exists in close proximity to AS220, Trinity Repertory Company, the Rhode Island School of Design, and other creative communities. By tapping into local performance, printmaking, comics, storytelling, and writing, we hope to offer a service (i.e. inspiration, research support) to our local community, to bring new users into the Library (and especially Special Collections), and simultaneously to document contemporary creative work as it unfolds, which is essential in accurately reflecting the city’s history. We think a lot about our role as the Special Collections in a public library, which needs to be responsive to and accessible to the variety of people our library serves, while also documenting elements of local history that may not be captured elsewhere.

Tardis_plumbing
Lower left: letterpress print by Dan Wood, incorporating imagery of a Tardis from Dr. Who and historical toilets from a plumber’s trade magazine. Lower right: part of a late 19th century plumber’s trade magazine. Top: detail from Academie Universelle des Jeux

Through open creative research hours, research appointments, and ongoing relationship-building with artists, we try to cultivate a research experience that is participatory and immersive, where an artist can surround him- or herself with remnants of past visual worlds and the seeds of new ones. We feel (and we’re certainly not alone in this) that there’s something special about physical materials, that which can be touched, felt, and smelled. Through repeated visits to the library, researchers form intimate relationships with research objects, which work their ways into ideas, sketchbooks, studios and homes.

Lots of places are doing amazing work along similar lines, and we’re paying close attention! We’ve been inspired by places that integrate creativity seamlessly into their library missions, like the Hatchery at the Glasgow School of Art (what a great name!); by community-driven archival projects like the Interference Archive; and by community-based art projects like Fun-a-Day and PARK(ing) Day.

Clambake_Balloon_View
Left: black and white photograph of a clambake, from the RI Photograph Collection. Right: part of a fantastical map by Keegan Bonds-Harmon, inspired by the c. 1890 “A Balloon View of Narragansett Bay”

Tell Me More!

Artists featured in our current exhibition include: Walker Mettling, Mickey Zacchilli, Brian Whitney, Dan Wood, Caitlin Cali, Guy-Maly Pierre, Dailen Williams, Jeremy Ferris, Jim Frain, Veronica Santos, Joe DeGeorge, Keegan Bonds-Harmon, and Burke & Hare Co., as well as numerous participants from our teen fashion programs

You can see the exhibition at the library during our regular open hours, from now through August 15th. Artwork is on display in the Rhode Island Room on the 1st floor of the library, and in hallway cases on the 3rd floor of the library.

You can buy (super limited!) copies of the Special Collections-themed Providence Sunday Wipeout comics newspaper through the library or at Ada Books. Beautiful candles printed with historical images can be purchased through the Burke & Hare Co. website.

You can learn more about the goings-on in the Providence Public Library’s Special Collections on our blog or on Twitter.

 

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