Inside Providence Nicholson File Art Studios

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By Robert Isenberg

Suppose you graduated from RISD. You have studied a lot. You master your art; now is the time to get professional. You could go to New York, but it’s expensive and you don’t know anyone there. You could create some new artwork in your apartment, but it’s cramped and your roommate hates the way you leave your things lying around.

So you hear about this magical place: the Nicholson File Art Studios, a former factory located in the Vallée district. You are amazed. You visited the nearby Steel Yard. You attended the WaterFire Arts Center. You shop at the Farm Fresh RI hub every weekend. And now there’s this huge industrial space, filled with studios and fellow artists, just around the corner from these hotspots? Is such a dream possible?

“What it is,” says Asher Schofield, co-owner of the Frog & Toad gift shop, “is space for a kid fresh out of college with mountains of student debt. They can still afford to rent a place here.

The Nicholson File Building is a large two-storey brick box with 9,000 square feet of floor space. The roof is topped with a dormant chimney, so you know you’ve come to the right place. A century ago, the factory produced 120,000 metal files a day, making the Nicholsons one of the wealthiest families in Providence. The factory closed in the late 1950s, but like many old mills, the building was revived as a space for artists and craftspeople. Nicholson File was one of many projects led by art proponents Rachel Rafaelian and Erik Bright; the resort opened in 2009.

On a recent weekday, Schofield gave us a tour of the facility. Open studios were once a common occurrence at Nicholson File, and now that COVID cases have subsided, the public will once again be invited to visit artists’ workspaces. Each floor is divided into rooms, and each room is filled to the brim with supplies. One workshop is for woodworking, another for ceramics, another for metalwork. Films are shot and canvases are painted. At present, around 25 artists have their headquarters there. The dusty air hums with overlapping creativity.

“The opportunity to collaborate with other artists, to learn from them, to be inspired by them, I think there is a lot to be said about being in a community like this”, says Schofield.

For Schofield, the studios were a place to reinvigorate his business. Five years ago, Frog & Toad was already a popular destination on the East Side, but he wanted the store to develop its own line of t-shirts and greeting cards. With ample workspace, Schofield was able to purchase printing machines and organize art materials. His creative team could develop new products off-site and then easily transport them to the store.

“My business has grown dramatically after I got that studio space and was able to add a few more irons to the fire in terms of the scope of what we’re doing,” he says. “I am super grateful for this opportunity.”

Schofield believes that post-industrial studios were once a vital part of Providence’s cultural scene. Nicholson File is not far from Fort Thunder, the warehouse that was a mainstay of local underground music and performance art in the late 1990s. claimed by developers for upscale lofts, flourishing spaces like Nicholson File are becoming increasingly vital.

“You just want the arts and culture scene to be as vibrant as possible,” says Schofield. “Because it’s better for everyone. “

Open studio events will take place in October.



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