Handmade postcards, public participation, stories, wooden shelves. Commissioned by the international Urban Cultural Heritage and Creative Practice project, in collaboration with Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for the Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. Exhibited at Brown University’s Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Providence, RI.
You can see all 100 photos at Flickr and purchase prints of these photographs soon. Contact me if interested.
About a year ago, I was asked by Brown University to create an artwork exploring cultural heritage in Providence, Rhode Island, where the university is based. Cultural heritage is so often a history of the monumental, institutional, and powerful. I wanted a colorful history of everyday people and places instead. I immediately thought about creating a system that would allow people from throughout the city to share their stories with one another, to discover the layers of narrative that glimmer beneath each and every place in the city, and frame them for all to see. I wanted a crowd-sourced anthology of the city, only I wanted the stories to be tactile and present in real life.
And then it dawned on me: there already was a system in place to circulate these narratives. It was called the U.S. Post Office. People used to write stories about their lives to one another in the form of letters and postcards. If I could create a set of neighborhood postcards, people could mail their stories of these places to one another, and share their stories that way.
And so was born the Providence Postcard Project. I visited 25 neighborhoods, talking with hundreds of people, and asked them what the most meaningful places in their neighborhood were: if they could make unofficial postcards of just their neighborhood, what would they choose? I took photographs of each of these places, chose 100 final images, made 10 vintage postcards of each, and unleashed 1000 postcards into the city, pre-postmarked, pre-addressed to me, and with a simple prompt: “When I look at this postcard, I think about…”. I tried to make them beautiful, so that people would know that their special spots were cared for. I left the postcards in libraries, retirement homes, youth arts centers, bus stations, ice skating rinks – you name it. I thought I might get 300 of them back. Instead, I got double that: 600 stories about Providence from all kinds of people – young and old, rich and poor, queer and straight — sharing the meaningful, quirky, mundane, tragic, hilarious stories of their lives
I designed shelves for the postcards based on an abstraction of the river that runs through the heart of the city, with the idea that the stories ran through the city the same way the river did. For a month, people told stories to one another as they bumped into each other at the exhibition. Eavesdropping on them was one of the best parts of my day. It was like hearing stories told round the fire. And now that the postcards have been put away, I like to think that these stories are glistening quietly beneath the city’s surface, reawakened by memories.
I also wrote an essay for online urban design magazine, Betterly, about the project. Link coming soon.