A Feminist Art Collective Gets a Historic Home

Wedding Cake House, located at 514 Broadway, in Providence, Rhode Island (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Walking into the Wedding Cake House, a historic Victorian Italianate mansion on the west side of Providence, is like entering another world. The three-storey, 9,004-square-foot house has been taken over by artists, 150 to be exact. They’ve papered the walls with custom designs, painted bathroom tiles and wooden floors, built desks, and installed 100 artworks, all as part of the exhibition Ruffles, Repair & Ritual: the Fine Art of Fixing.

The house was acquired in 2017 by artists Xander Marro and Pippi Zornoza, with the intention of turning it into an artist residency and bed and breakfast, to help foster a sustainable arts community in the city. Marro and Zornoza are well-versed in community building. Since 2000, they’ve run the Dirt Palace, a feminist artist space just down the road from their new digs. The Wedding Cake House, which had been vacant for decades, was in stark disrepair. Marro and Zornoza have led restoration efforts for the past two years — with the help, of course, of the artists in the show. The sale coincided with the house’s 150th anniversary, which inspired the owners to organize this monumental group exhibition.

Wallpaper on the second floor, designed by Lara Henderson

One third of the 150 pieces are permanent; 25 are text-based and published in a book that accompanies the exhibition. The rest are two-dimensional framed works, on display through 2020, and time-based pieces, which can be viewed on screens throughout the house. Marro and Zornoza worked with curators for each section, and all the artists had the general directive to make work related to the title, a nod to both the renovation process and the last occupants of the home: the Tirocchi sisters, who ran an atelier there from 1915 to 1947.

“The idea was hopefully to invite the artists to generate new work that was inspired by the house or the sisters,” says Faythe Levine, who curated the flat works. Levine invited artists who are, or were in the past, part of the Dirt Palace, or similar DIY, feminist communities across the country. She installed the work while the house was mid-renovation. 

Lu Heintz, “Remnants” (2019), carbon transfer, graphite, and paper on panel

“Finding those moments of synergy between all of the collaborators, not only [with] the flat and framed work but the artist-designed wallpaper and floors and all of the architectural details,” she says, and “getting to be a part of this large puzzle solving was really amazing.”

Art deco wallpaper, designed and installed by Alison Nitkiewicz, is one of the first works you see upon entering the house. It lines the walls of the entryway and leads up the central staircase to the second floor. Nitkiewicz’s geometric design was inspired by beadwork in the Tirocchi sisters archive (housed at the RISD Museum); she printed it using a CMYK process. Paired above a Liz Collins–designed carpet, made up of dark blues and reds, the effect is dizzying and exhilarating. The maximalist approach sometimes borders on visual overload — but it also made me excited to see what else this mansion had to offer.

On the second floor, a futuristic print by Macon Reed hangs on a dark mauve wall. Bright pink lettering reads, “Expand the Feminine Spectrum,” superimposed on a stylized, blue and black solar system. The piece was originally made for an installation paying homage to dyke bars. Reed wanted to ensure that past project was inclusive to trans folks, a sentiment that also felt applicable here. It immediately signals to the viewer that the space is taking an expansive, inclusive view of gender.

Left: Heather Benjamin, “Untitled” (2019), woven cotton blanket; right: Lisa Oppenheim, “Untitled” (2019), woven cotton blanket

“Expanding the notion of what feminine-spectrum people could be or what they might look like is part of it [the work’s message],” Reed says. “The other part is making room for trans women to be part of sisterhood.” 

The video work adopts a similarly expansive view of feminism. In “Stay With Me,” Ayana Evans jumps rope in the rain, wearing high heels and a formal gown, for two hours. Jumping rope is an easy activity, the artist explains, that becomes almost gendered when done in heels — making it an easy-to-understand metaphor for many challenges in life, perhaps particularly for women. In Joiri Minaya’s “Siboney,” the artist paints a wall with a stunning tropical landscape, then rubs her body against it, smearing the paint. Throughout the work, subtitles explore questions of the gaze, identity, and objectification in art (Who has a voice to speak? Who represents who? For whose gaze?)

Daniella Ben-Bassat, still from Kesey Farm performance
Daniella Ben-Bassat, still from Kesey Farm performance

Many other video works explore the concept of ritual, from Sherente Harris’s long shot of a person dancing barefoot in the snow to a performance by Daniella Ben-Bassat, where a plant is tenuously affixed to a light-sensitive motor, creating a surprising, experimental visual and sonic trajectory.

From the renovation itself to organizing a comprehensive exhibition to rebirthing the remarkable lives of the Tirocchi sisters, Marro and Zornoza have accomplished a remarkable feat. 

As Nitkiewicz says, “The fact that the house was owned by two sisters, who were creative powerhouses in Providence, and now is owned by two women who are basically sisters, again, who are total powerhouses, is just this beautiful circle.”

The Wedding Cake House is located at 514 Broadway, Providence, Rhode Island.

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