CITY HISTORY A 2001 print.
Before offering a preview of Providence artist Ian Cozzens’s upcoming exhibition at the University of Rhode Island Art Gallery, “Material Resistance: Prints & Projects 2000-2013,” it’s only fair that I offer some journalistic disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of Cozzens’s work and I have a number of his prints hanging in my apartment.
Having grown up in Providence, I can’t help but swoon at his painstaking, Technicolor renderings the tri-smokestacked Manchester Street power station and the Industrial Trust Building. And I’m an equal devotee to his portraits of more anonymous buildings like the triple-decker apartment building at 57-59 Curtis Street, in Olneyville, where he bestows the same meticulous care to rendering the house’s TV antennas and clapboards as he does the Industrial Trust’s iconic Art Deco silhouette.
(“It’s pretty ordinary and prosaic,” Cozzens writes online of the former Polish National Home building on Chaffee Street in Providence, which he drew for another print. “[B]ut in the process of drawing it, I perceived what care was taken in designing it. To draw a building from before the computer-aided design era is to step into the mind of the person or people who drew it originally; to trace over the lines they laid out, to understand the decisions they made as you seek out the logic behind their shapes and construction. It’s almost ghostly: the presence of someone else’s hands and mind is so strong.”)
Cozzens graduated with a bachelor’s in architecture from RISD, but oddly enough, he says, it was his love of buildings that lured him away from designing them. In the early 2000s, he got involved with efforts to save the complex of mill buildings on Providence’s West End — including the home of the legendary sculpture/performance/music/anything-goes Fort Thunder collective — set to be demolished by out-of-town developers eyeing the space as a future shopping center. Creating prints like 2001’s “FIGHT TO SAVE EAGLE SQUARE: JOIN THE STRUGGLE TO PRESERVE PROVIDENCE’S HISTORIC MILLS. DEMAND RESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNITY ACCOUNTABILITY!” was not only a way of organizing on behalf of these buildings, Cozzens says, but of participating in the “weirdo zone” culture found inside the structures themselves. When it came to promoting the shows that took place in the mills, for example, a newspaper ad was liable to get a venue shut down; a hand-made, hand-posted print could be more discreet.
For those who never went to Fort Thunder and who weren’t paying attention to the debate between artists, developers, city planners, and fire inspectors that Eagle Square triggered (this includes me; I was in high school at the time and utterly unaware) Cozzens prints and posters provide a bracing gust of the political spirit from that moment and subsequent years. It’s there in his Spanish-English prints depicting the stately domes of Atlantic Mills and proclaiming “STRUEVER BROTHERS, ARMORY REVIVAL CO., AND ALL SPECULATIVE DEVELOPERS OUT OF OLNEYVILLE NOW! . . . WE LIVE IN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD. IT BELONGS TO US.” It’s there in his poster design for Robin Amer’s masterful 2004 radio documentary, “Reconstructing Providence,” covering the debate over the future of Providence’s 200-plus mill buildings.