Ocean State

by Scott Lawrence

“Live in New York, LA, Cologne or London.” -John Baldessari, Letters to a Young Artist

I lived in New York, but I left it for Providence, Rhode Island four years ago. It wasn’t a choice - it was for love. We were newly married. My partner’s career required her to spend four years in Providence, so I left the city with her after eight years there. If things had worked out a little differently I’d likely still be working forty hours in Manhattan and living in whatever remote corner of Brooklyn is still affordable to someone in my modest income bracket.

In 2006, I moved to New York from Atlanta for my MFA and I was energized. Maybe you’re like me: you moved there from somewhere else and the city pushed you, taught you and changed you through exposure and experience. In return you gave it energy and optimism. But I won’t deny that frankly there were also some very desperate times. I learned the most from those. My problem was fundamental – after working full time to pay rent on a tiny shared apartment plus a studio, I was pushing hard on nights and weekends to do what I was there for.

Moving to Providence from New York felt altogether different. I went through a period of decompression that took me by surprise. After six or eight months here I finally shook the feeling that I was on some extended coastal-New England vacation. Everything was a new type of normal, exotic almost – accents, the popularity of donuts and the strangely polite stop sign etiquette. We moved into one floor of a house with a big backyard, a tool shed and a huge garden. The last time I lived this way was as a teenager in Alabama. Having a real closet felt indulgent, not to mention a car. It was like re-integration. I found a job on Main Street in a nearby town. We got a dog. We have a daughter now. I’ve conveniently taken over our basement as my studio.

As an artist, moving here from New York felt a little like ditching the script, like exiting the stage through the backdrop, mid-show. And it’s not like Providence is remote. RISD and Brown attract artists like Urs Fischer and Michelle Grabner to show work or speak. There are some outstanding local galleries and venue.

And the art community... ’ve found good friends here whose work I’m excited about and who are accomplished by any standard. I’m even still able to show my work in New York sometimes.

I notice it most in the studio, where the transition has been a tectonic shift that I’m still feeling. My ‘situation’ informs my work. Daily life is often my starting point, and I try to take note of commonplace details that have potential or weight. But all the details have changed. Driving to work, I see foxes, turkeys and Trump-Pence stickers. The everyman in Rhode Island is not the everyman in New York.

I sometimes notice other artists - acquaintances, Facebook friends – leaving New York and I wonder about their different situations. Whatever their version of success, I hope they find it.