This time of year, on the doorstep of the frenzied holiday season, Providence’s Westminster Street is a vibe. Strings of glowing market lights extend for blocks, a luminous canopy guiding shoppers as they mill about, looking for just the right treasures for just the right someones. Shopkeeps stock their shelves with wares selected months ago for this very moment, and the charismatic east-west artery radiates the city’s “Creative Capital” moniker.
Unquestionably, it’s the artists, artisans, crafters, and makers who are the heart and soul (so much soul) of the city’s creative identity, and it’s the dedicated store owners, artist cooperatives, organizers, and art supporters who allow the scene to survive and thrive. Of course, shopping is a centuries-old tradition on Westminster Street (Cherry & Webb! Gladdings! Shepard’s! Woolworth’s!), and the shops here today are equally woven into its colorful tapestry of culture and history. To recommend a single artist-centric shop in the area is an exercise in futility, as almost all are extraordinary gems in our creative crown.
Craftland dipped its toes in the proverbial holiday shopping season waters more than 20 years ago, first as a holiday pop-up event before planting more permanent, year-round roots at the corner of Westminster and Eddy streets in 2009. Owned and operated by a self-identified “lovable, rag-tag gang of artists,” like Forrest Gump’s folkloric box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get in this wondrous space. The bulk of the fortuitous finds — artwork, cards and stationery, handmade jewelry, accessories, ceramics products, wellness, and more – are the handiwork of more than 150 artists, mostly from Rhode Island, plus some of our neighbors, with a few “pieces of artistry and weirdness from across the country.”
Powerful prints by Jacques Bidon, pottery by Bri Larson, super cool glass magnets and keychains by glassblower Suzanne Tanner of Tanner Glass, non-toxic natural candles, jewelry and funky flour sack tea towels by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) alumni Nora Alexander and Maie Vaga of Noon Design Shop (you can find their flagship in Pawtuxet Village), and more – even toys and kids items – are tucked into seemingly every nook and cranny. But it’s the shop’s annual Holiday Extravaganza, a veritable take-no-prisoners month-long artisan-a-thon that’s an abundance of artistic splendor.
“This month we’re revamping the store, painting the displays, and changing things up so it looks fresh and new, and then we get all this new work and fill the store right after Thanksgiving, so for Christmas, it’s just like a brand new store,” says Craftland manager and jewelry maker Darrien Segal. “You go in now and you think it’s full, and you’re like, ‘It couldn’t possibly add more inventory!’ but somehow we just keep on piling more stuff in!” Segal, a RISD alumna, says the store’s owner, Margaret Carleton, is enormously supportive of fellow artists and arts organizations, and crafters who participate in the Holiday Extravaganza are selected through a jury process, an opportunity that marries curatorial vision with a wider audience.
It’s especially fun to have students come in, many with their parents, and see for themselves that one can successfully pursue their passion in the creative arts, says Segal. “It’s nice for them to see where it ends up… They’re like, ‘Oh, okay, you’re still doing your thing — working, making jewelry, having a job.’”
Rhode Island pride thrives at Rhody Craft, a gallery of handcrafted goods on the East Side. With an address appropriately personifying the official state motto emblazoned on the state flag – Hope – this Rockwellian residential enclave is also home to the highest concentration of independently owned businesses in Providence (and nearly all are owner-operated). Handmade enamel pins, quirky kitchen gear, wearables, paper goods and lots of Ocean State must-have swag nests here (Del’s Lemonade soy candle? Yep. An Awful Awful-inspired tote bag? Of course. A Rhode Island-themed koozie by Eileen Pollina of Eileen Graphics in Newport? Obvi.).
While some may caution not to make the mistake of confusing the artist-centric shops of Hope Street with the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, we think such a switcheroo can only serve to explore even more Rhode Island talent. One of the largest successful mill restoration projects in the state, Hope Artiste Village is a convergence of creativity, community, and artistic expression. A blend of art studios, shops, light industrial workshops, and live/work lofts – plus some professional office spaces – the village is where you’ll find pieces by native Rhode Islander and accessories designer Lisa Mackey, fashionable clutches by Kent Stetson, contemporary handcrafted jewelry by Thea Izzi, extraordinary oil paintings on glass by Nicole Chesney, custom artwork by Gail Ahlers (Ahlers Designs), bags and jewelry made of cork by artist Kim McMahon of MACS Boutique Cork Jewelry & Accessories, and funny, irreverent T-shirts, mugs, and gifts by Milkcan Industries, AKA “Rhode Island’s most self-deprecating T-shirt company.”
One can’t discuss Providence’s prolific art scene without acknowledging RISD, one of the top-ranked art and design schools in the world. The lynchpin of the artistic community, Rhode Island has generously reaped her rewards. Lore, a curated, handmade lifestyle shop tucked into the city’s Fox Point neighborhood since 2016, is owned and operated by RISD alumna and artist Jayna Aronovitch. Bridging the gap between past and present, the space carries mostly women-owned brands, which is apropos as RISD was founded by a small group of women led by Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf, and the idea behind the college was driven by the desire to increase the accessibility of design education to women and support the state’s thriving textiles and jewelry industries. Today, Lore exemplifies that legacy of creativity, stocking the bright and airy shop with beautiful, carefully chosen pieces, many one-of-a-kind or limited edition, including textiles, home decor and accessories, ceramics, and paper goods. Think handmade kiln-fired glass flower coasters by DOT, Lazuli Handcrafted jewelry designed by Newport-based Erika Young, and RA HA Jewelry made by Julia Sullivan in Providence. “Most all of my vendors are women, or POC, or queer,” says Aronovitch. “We have a queer-owned apothecary brand, Goddex Apothecary, that’s one of our best sellers.”
Aronovitch says that when she started her business, artist-owned shops were somewhat of an anomaly in Providence. “To be honest, I was kind of in the forefront of making it okay to have an art business or follow your interests in the field of being a self-employed artist. I feel like we were kind of one of the first shops that opened up back in the day,” she recalls. “Ten years ago, I think there was White Buffalo – she’s still around which is incredible – and Queen of Hearts/Modern Love; when Karen [Beebe] opened her shop, she was like the real MVP of creative businesses supporting other artists.” That reciprocal support, elevated by opportunities like the Providence Flea, she explains, helped grow the creative community.
“I feel like when I graduated RISD, I didn’t know that I could run my own business and be a professional creative, independent of working for other people, and now, most of the students I see that graduate, it seems like that’s what they’re all doing…back when I was starting out, it was kind of this really risky, weird thing to do.”
Downtown buildings worthy of a closer look
By Christine Francis, Carmen & Ginger
Until suburban shopping malls became the norm and driving yourself to a parking lot replaced taking public transportation, a visit to downtown Providence was a retail treat. It’s hard for those who did not grow up in Rhode Island to imagine the past, and it is just as hard for those who grew up in the state to reconcile the present. For this reason we should embrace and share the history so that it is not lost. Some points of interest for your next trek downtown:
• The Outlet Company was the biggest store downtown and drew people for Christmas as well as throughout the year. Sadly, a fire destroyed the building in 1986, creating the space that is now the main green for Johnson & Wales University.
• The former Tri-Store Bridge is still visible from Westminster Street. It formerly connected department stores The Shepard Company (Shepard’s), Gladdings, and Cherry & Webb to allow shoppers access to all three without going back outside.
• Although currently home to the University of Rhode Island’s downtown campus, the iconic Shepard’s Clock on Westminster serves as a keeper of its retail history.
• Look west from Dorrance up Westminster to see the name Kresge’s cast into that building; the large window that showcased the Fur Department at Peerless, formerly The Boston Store, is now a unique feature of one of the Westminster Lofts in the Peerless Residential building.
• Directly across the street at Westminster and Union facing south is another former department store now mixed-use; this was the O’Gorman Building, which housed The Big Store and later Dimonds. At the other end of Westminster, at Mathewson Street, stood Gladdings. See more before-and-after photos at CarmenAndGinger.com/blog
Just a handful of the many other businesses specializing in local and handmade across the city:
Frog & Toad
Green River Silver
Reliable Gold LTD
Missed your fave? Let us know at Marketing@ProvidenceOnline.com
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here