right now!     ian g. cozzens updates, news, photos, and thoughts

leading with the edge

October 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Your long-absent correspondent is very much alive over here in Providence. Summer happened, I helped at my friends’ farm every weekend (except when I went traveling to the south for three weeks), I rode my bike a lot, I met and hung out with amazing people, had really good conversations, had some experiences that were pretty transformational, lived my life: it was totally wonderful.

Then it got chilly, then we had one final weekend of hot weather, now the temperature is dropping by 10 degrees every day and the Buio cat is curled up in a tight little ball & it looks like Fall is For Real. Which means that it’s not time to stop living life, or time to stop being wonderful: it’s just a time for doing work & getting serious & wearing sweaters & buckling down to the task(s) at hand. Also I’m broke so it’s convenient that now there is much less temptation to go on long bike rides or hang out on rooftops or talk late into the night next to bonfires…

I just put up a big re-organizational update to the main Secret Door Projects website.

I did most of the work on this re-organization back in February and March, to get to show some different priorities & new directions that my work has taken since 2007 when I first made the SDP website… so there are new sections for comics & zines, fonts I’ve drawn, a “practice & process” section grouping process work & creative practice stuff together… and also a thing with a little bit about my gender identity & the fact that my name is now Ian!

It took me so long to put this update up because I was attempting to write all my family members actual paper letters about my gender stuff & name shift. This was totally overwhelming (I have a lot of cousins & second cousins) & I ultimately realized I was being held back professionally & creatively by not being able to be out — as trans and as Ian — on facebook & on the internet. It surprised me how much I felt like I was existing as a partial person, not being able to be be consistent & public about my name & my gender & identity…

So… unsurprisingly maybe, my cousins, aunts, & uncles did not all get letters from me yet… but I went ahead and changed my name on facebook (personal page, art page) and put up the giant website update. To my family who may be reading this (and anybody else who is confused), I’m sorry for the lack of more personal communication… but I’ll see you soon & we can talk about it then. Real quick: I identify as a boy (also occasionally as a man!), I use “he” pronouns, my name is Ian Gilpin Cozzens, I’m a queer which means (among other things) that I’m not interested in assimilating to any idea of the ‘normal’ in the realms of desire or gender identity… and I love you.


— ian c.

…from my travels…

oh also now that things are more consistent for me on the internet, you can probably expect more regular updates of this page here… and I’ll probably be writing about gender & identity & stuff too… we’ll see how it goes.

being public

January 27, 2011 at 4:03 am

Quick notes about upcoming events; fractional treatment of complicated subjects.


I am going to be speaking on a panel this weekend, as part of an event that the RISD Office of Public Engagement is putting on, titled “Queer Representation & Resistance as Acts of Justice“.*

The panel I am on is called “Identity, Place, & Practice” and (quoting from the official description), “will explore the ways that queer identity intersects with creative practice.” Since being asked to be part of the panel, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot. …. I mean, I think about it a lot in general, but recently I’ve been trying to think about it constructively instead of just worrying a bunch of things around in my head.

I’ve been intending to do some writing about it, but I have had three other serious deadlines which have also been occupying my mind & time… plus a certain amount of procrastinating, finishing the first five pages of the Scar comic, enjoying being snow-bound with my awesome housemates, and cleaning up half of my print studio and my main working space, which, though it was really important and necessary, just got me back to clear-desk-land, didn’t get anything truly accomplished.

So yeah, I have a bunch of thoughts on these topics — queer identity, art, purpose, social identity, community, context, audience, story-telling, meaning — but nothing is concrete enough to put up in writing here yet. So, come to the panel to hear me attempt to sort it all out!

Sunday, January 30th, 12:30pm
AS220, 115 Empire St, Providence

My awesome and accomplished fellow panelists are Matthew Lawrence, Mickey Zacchilli, and Laurencia Strauss. There is another panel discussion afterwards about “Institutional Silences”; there is a related talk on Saturday afternoon… I am excited for it all, and very proud to be part of it.

I am also going to be in an art show at Cade Tompkins Projects, called “Printed in Providence”,* from February 4th to March 19th. You can and should come to this party too, especially if you need to ask me more questions to clarify what the crumb I was talking about in that panel!

opening reception Friday, February 4th, 6-8pm
198 Hope Street, Providence
(Entrance on Fones Alley between Waterman and Angell)


comics drawing, story telling

January 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Whoa, sorry for a long time of no updating — I’ve been vaguely overwhelmed by holiday times, business stuff, traveling to see people, and working!

Now… the holiday crunch is over, and I got sucked into working on writing and drawing a comic. I know, this is not a “productive” silkscreen-type project like I probably should be working on, but it’s pretty exciting to me. It’s an adventure story based on a comic book character named Scar, made up by a middle school kid. Andrew Oesch and Walker Mettling had the kids in their after-school comics classes (at public library branches) draw and write a bunch of characters, and their attributes and backstories, to then write comics about. Grownups (or should I say, “grownups”) also made up some of the characters, but this one was written & drawn by a kid.

scar character page, drawn by a kid

Here is Andrew & Walker’s project blog with about ten of the many, many characters, and songs by Amil Byleckie to go with them!

The characters were all made into “rogues gallery” type books (as seen in the photo* above), which AO offset-printed at AS220. Using the books as reference, the kids made comics about and around the characters, which I mostly haven’t gotten a chance to read yet… and the character books were also handed out to various artists around town so they could also make comics & drawings based on the characters. (Here’s one: Mickey Z’s comic, and the characters it is based on.)

Upon seeing the full-color drawing that Alec Thibodeau (a dedicated vegan) made of “Tofoon”, a giant block-shaped warrior made of radioactive tofu, I said, “oh my gosh, I have to do this, what do I do, is there still time, I have to make a comic for this project.”

I looked through the books & to Andrew’s amusement, found a character that is maybe one of the more brawny / classic-superhero-y of the collection… at least as the kid drew him: so far I have drawn three pages that are pretty emo, and then there are two pages in progress that are more active… but I have a feeling there’s going to be a good deal of action eventually. Though, as AO said (in response to my worry that I wasn’t gonna get the action scenes done because all I wanted to draw was love scenes), “love scenes are kinda like action scenes.” ehhhhhh…


Anyways, I was trying to keep this update brief, and just say, “I’m making a comic & it’s really fun!” But now that I got into it, here’s the origin story of why I’m working on this comic that promises to be super epic, based on a little kid’s idea…

Thanks to the diligence and stubbornness of our mother, my brothers & I grew up throughout the 80s and 90s without a television in our house. Although we would go to a movie occasionally or watch TV at other kids’ houses, reading — books, picture books, newspaper comics, and Tintin comic books — was our main source of narrative and visual entertainment. When I went to college in Chicago in the late 90s, I drew a couple of comics & illustrations for the independent school newspaper there, and I was introduced to self-published zines and comics, but I never made anything long-form — I didn’t have any good ideas for what it should be about, and I didn’t want to make something just for the sake of making something.

Arriving in Providence at the end of the 90s, I was extremely inspired by the comics artists here, as published in the newsprint periodical Paper Rodeo and other small, hand-made formats around town.** I would dedicate hours of coffee-shop patience to deciphering what was going on in the tiny, odd-sized panels filled with scribbly lines. Stretches of narrative unfolded and then fell away, characters were introduced and then re-appeared, maybe, fleetingly, with a different name or years later, hardened and world-weary. Little guys got stomped on by giants, scrappy weirdos and machine-men fought against forces of corporate ownership, people tried to build structure and spaces and logic for themselves in a confusing world that was beyond their comprehension.


I loved how these stories created fantastical, imaginary worlds, filled with the adventure elements that I had loved as a kid & teenager — that at the same time served as metaphors for the world that we lived in in Providence, with its magic, struggles, and difficulties. Going to shows, making our homes in weird industrial spaces, and making art in Providence was the first time that I had felt like I was actually living in an actual place, living my real life — I didn’t have to live in medieval times or in an imaginary fantasy world to live authentically and experience exciting things. Biking manically through the car-clogged, snowy streets, climbing up dark, steep staircases to dance wildly at noise shows, exploring the city and meeting new people, staying up all night to finish making something important and beautiful — these were the real adventures of my real life in the broken, vibrant, difficult, actual world.

My ambitions to make comics continued to grow, but I knew that I still didn’t have a story to tell: I shied away from a personal narrative of my own life, because I felt like it wasn’t coherent or important enough. Translating things metaphorically seemed like the only way I could make a thing that would feel far enough away from me to be able to put it together as a story, as opposed to a shapeless, self-indulgent splurt of what my high school english teacher Mr. Reinke might call “logorrhea”. But what story did I have to tell that even merited translation?

After a friend of mine had a bad hand injury a couple years ago, I spent some time sketchily scripting ideas and scenarios for a comic about people in a world “not unlike our own”, where there’s a fascist military police force made up of people who’ve been augmented with metal/robotic weapon arms (with one thread of influence branching from Mat Brinkman’s Multi-Force comic epic, which is set in an underground labyrinth in which the monster/warrior characters have giant interchangeable battle arms…). The protagonist of my story was a young man who is recruited into the force and equipped with a weapon arm, but then deserts, thereby losing control of the arm. Removing the weapon leaves his own arm totally useless. He must figure out how to to hack the weapon arm and restructure its abilities from scratch, and how to use its weapon nature for good, or if that’s even possible.

So yeah, themes of physical vs. mental strength, the struggle with the body and its control, ability and communication, and a sub-narrative about neighborhoods and fascist urban planning strategies… also a love story between the young man and a nice lady who has a fiance who’s a legitimate member of the force, and the story of how she becomes politically radicalized… anyways! I have a bunch of pages of basically-illegible notes for this story in an old sketchbook… it was decent stuff, but I never made anything happen with it — partly because of time constraints & other projects, partly because I was self-conscious about the science fiction-y, comic-book-trope-y aspects of the story, partly because I was intimidated by having to make *so* *many* *drawings*.

When I read the character description of Scar (see the image at the top of this blog post), the parallels to my old story jumped out at me — all the old themes still tugged at me — plus the powerful idea of the flawed body & the search for completion. I was also psyched to try to write a tough superhero character, and to have the “trite comic-book-story” aspect of the character & the plot excused by its origin in a little kid’s imagination. I started writing a little bit of the backstory script — how he finds the arm, why Scar killed Black Death’s brother, what happened after his hands got cut off… and found myself totally thrilled and sucked into the process.


I’m way more compelled than I expected I would be by the demands of making drawings that tell the story, by figuring out how to do that. How to pace and time the action or sequence of actions, how to combine text and drawings in a way that leaves a lot to be filled in by the imagination, but sets up a coherent story for readers to grab on to. Still feel like I am totally ignorant of the “right way” of “how to do it” — but the first steps in figuring it out are very exciting. And — I finally feel like I have a story to tell.

So, the past couple of weeks have found me…

doing technical research:

conscripting my friends to be the photo reference for characters / people’s faces:

Ben as Brian/Scar:
pictures of a young man

Andrew as Time Stopper:
a drawing of a person and his superhero identity

combing my past photos for other visual references (in this case, cityscape, wide street):
cityscape view

making an actual balsa-wood model of the robot arm (I know, crazy, but totally awesome — I like having things I can look at to draw them, and the arm is as much a character in the story as Scar is…):
drawings and materials on a table

early version of the arm, now it’s a lot cooler than it is here:
balsa-wood model robot arm

Okay, that’s what I’ve been up to, also new year’s was awesome, and things are generally confounding and beautiful and transformative. I want to write more, and there is more of the backstory of why this story feels like it demands to be told, why it demands that I tell it. But! I also want to draw & write new pages of the story itself! Time time time…

I’ll post complete pages on the website here somewhere, when I have some more done. The first five pages will be published in the anthology that AO and Walker are putting out sometime “soon”, along with a bunch of other work surrounding all these characters, by kids and adults. I’m worried that I will never be able to finish my version/vision of Scar, that the story will spiral out of my control and that I will never be able to tell all the parts of it that are important to me (or that I’ll get distracted by the love scenes and never get around to figuring out how to draw the action scenes…!). But I know I need to just keep working on it, moment by moment, piece by piece, and let it accumulate slowly.

Also, the lesson that I ultimately take from Providence comics-makers, and from my friends alongside whom I am delighted to draw, is to remember to let things be loose, to not worry about connecting up every episode, but to concentrate on drawing the parts I want to draw, the parts that are the most fun to draw, the stories that are the most interesting to tell. Readers will make their own connections between them, and create a narrative out of my stumbly efforts…

okay wait, I can’t write about comics without linking to a couple of friends:
Melissa Mendes who is going really deep & intense with her self-investigative comics work right now;

James McShane whose total dedication to the form inspires & intimidates me daily;

and Brynocki C’s comics review blog, which might be one of the best blogs ever.

* apologies for all the blurry photos, I am reduced at the moment to using my cellphone camera since my old camera’s batteries seem permanently drained to the point of unusability, and I didn’t realized how much I depended on the macro-focus feature on my old camera. Acquiring a functional camera is on the to-do list…

** A small selection of this late 90s / early 2000s work, including Ninja and Maggots by Brian Chippendale, and Teratoid Heights and Multi-Force by Mat Brinkman, has been collected and re-published recently. Also, CF’s Powr Mastrs, though new work, is a product of the same scene/mentality… and Mickey Zacchilli‘s comics and print work are also in the Providence lineage of surreal, energetic scribble narrative…

epic organization

February 1, 2010 at 4:02 am

9 years of work…

I’ve been spending the past two days up in the studio working on organizing & sorting out my flat file & print storage shelves (assisted on Saturday by one of my awesome interns, Kate!). This is partly to take advantage of the ever-recurring January potential of “new year, new beginnings”, and partly to get ready for the secret door projects store, aka. “secret store!”, which is now actually about 80% in existence & officially coming soon. To have a store, I have to know what I actually have to sell, right?

…all spread out on the floor…

Well, it turns out that I have more than I thought I did… In sorting out the flat file, I turned up some edition copies of the American Woolen Co. print (which I didn’t even think I had any of for my own archives!), some good copies of the Knitting Machine – Providence print, some perfect copies of the Happy Birthday Mike Leslie print, a couple of edition copies (plus some artist proofs) of the Knitting Machine – MassMoCA print… plus a bunch of other stuff that I thought I was entirely out of, or only had mis-prints or damaged prints remaining.

…don’t trip!

All this will be in the store when it is up! Which should be (I say tentatively) by this coming Sunday. It would be up sooner, except I am headed to New Orleans tomorrow morning & I’m hopefully gonna be drawing, printing, & taking pictures (and maybe building some stuff) the whole time I am there.

also notable in the past week or so:

“Hunter Plaid Perspective”

feat. Serena & Will:
pattern in perspective I

and then Serena, Meg, & Will (we found another shirt!):
pattern in perspective II

[these images are a photo response to: “R U A Team Player?“]

…and, last but not least, they have been tearing down the remaining 195 highway. The steel framework surrounding the painted concrete columns had been providing reinforcement for its crumbling structure….

wickenden st. / point st. overpass

classic superman style

October 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm

This building, which faces onto the central bus plaza of downtown Providence, has been the home of three or maybe four banks, one after the other, in the ten years I’ve lived here. When I talk about the print I’m working on to people, nobody is exactly certain which bank is the current occupant… but everyone immediately knows the building itself. It’s generally referred to as “the Superman building”, because it supposedly gets leaped over in a single bound in one of the early movies.

“the superman building”

In architectural history class years ago, discussing 1920s urbanism, the professor raised the crucial point that Providence didn’t ever actually need setbacks on its single, lonely skyscraper — even now, the downtown density doesn’t warrant them. However, it’s good that they did build this slightly cheesy, mini-Hugh-Ferriss-ian pile of limestone, because it’s the one building that receives unconditional love from everyone who’s ever lived here. Providence’s newer tall buildings (whether from the 1980s or the 2000s), with their flat curtain walls, tend to be universally detested.

I drew it from life in summer 2002, sitting on the steps of the downtown post office for days on end (becoming buddies with the post office security guard in the process). Watching the sun pass over the building during the course of the day, I gleaned some secrets about the uses of recessed and protruding facade elements to cast shadows, enhancing the heavenward directionality. (The photo above is terrible, by the way: it’s taken with my cell phone camera at the cloudy end of a day, so none of the awesome linearity of the building is apparent… I’ll update with a better photo on the next sunny day!)

dave cole poster

I used the image to make the above poster design for Dave Cole, which the excellent Neil Burke printed (because I didn’t know anything about printing then, and was totally overwhelmed by the idea of printing 200 posters or however many Dave wanted). I finished cutting out all the super tiny windows totally last-minute, during down-time at my cousin’s wedding in Maine: I have troubled memories of sitting at a folding table, awkward in my fancy clothes, slicing meticulously with the knife, trying desperately not to be distracted by the fun happenings in the next room.

oh, the scotch tape!

complete with registration mark & black ink correction over the rubylith...

The transparencies, subject of so much precisional distress, are now in pretty rough shape: besides physical damage, check out where the non-archival scotch tape, stuck on to hold tiny straying pieces of rubylith, has actually bled the red color out of the rubylith! I scanned them a couple of months ago, and now I’m working in photoshop to repair some of the damage, and to re-align (more…)

old photos

June 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Well, I’ve been out of town for 22 days, off and on, since May 17th; of the past five and a half weeks, I’ve been gone for three of them. Yikes.

So, I haven’t gotten much done work-wise, and I’ve felt overwhelmed by trying to write about anything on this updates page. A lot has been going on: we had a family reunion (my mom’s father’s side of the family) in Maryland, I visited family & friends in Philadelphia and my brother Dan in New York. I returned to Providence May 27th and then headed up to Worcester for the weekend a couple of days later. On the way there, I got a call from my mom letting me know that my gran (my dad’s mother Jean, my namesake) had been taken into the hospital in a coma with a cerebral hemorrhage & was not expected to survive. Other than slowly progressing alzheimer’s & resultant short-term memory loss, my gran had been in pretty great physical health, so this was very unexpected and sudden.

photos of my grandmother Jean, c. 1940-41

I had just spent a lot of time with her in Philadelphia, walking around and talking outdoors in beautiful gardens and sunlight… so I didn’t rush back down there to be at the bedside (my mom and dad and brother were there sitting with her for much of the time she was in the hospital). She passed away two days later, still in the coma, pretty peacefully and painlessly, apparently.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot in the past month, obviously, and about life and memory and history and families and all that stuff… I’m not going to write too much about it here right now, but it has been an intense time. Even before she died, we had already made a plan with other family members to meet up in Dallas, Texas (where my dad and his brothers grew up, and where my gran had lived since 1954) to start sorting out stuff in her house. She had moved up to Philadelphia (where my parents are) on kind of short notice in February of this year, after she started to have some health problems that made it more hazardous for her to live on her own. There hadn’t really been a chance to bring any of her stuff (besides her cat Smokey, clothes, and some family photos) from Texas. We were planning to gather stuff that she might like (furniture, paintings, etc) so she could have them with her at the assisted-living place where she was living.

After she died, our trip to Dallas turned into more of a memorial and a remembrance trip. It was really great to have time to spend with that side of our family, since there are not many of us and we rarely see each other. We also started cleaning out Gran’s house in earnest. It was super full: from ordinary stuff like paid bill receipts and the tax returns from 1955… to discoveries like the box of letters between her and our granddad from world war II, which she had told us she’d destroyed. Also treasures like old drafting tools from my granddad and his stepdad, beautiful plaid shirts that I remember my gran wearing (and have now adopted), Kennedy & LBJ pins, a McGovern campaign poster…

The best part was seeing all the photos that I had never, ever seen before: pictures of my gran as a young girl, a champion swimmer in their local swim league (1930s swimsuits, oh man), as a young wife and mother… pictures of my dad & his brothers growing up, cute boys with buzz cuts in the 50s and early 60s (with the added treat that, as a teenager, before he grew his beard, my dad looked *just* like me!)…. my granddad as a very handsome young man with a high Morrissey-style puff of hair. We don’t know anything about my great-grandfather, since he abandoned his family when my granddad was three years old, but we found a whole photo album of pictures of him as a young man (with the same sticky-out ears that my 17-year-old cousin has), hanging out and going on road trips with his friends around 1913-14. His nickname? What else but “Coz”.

There were many more family memories & stories that came up… and all the implications of beginning to clean up & sort out a house full of the stuff that is the physical record of someone’s life. This is very intense for me to think about: I have a lot of stuff, I accumulate a lot of stuff, I make a lot of stuff. I guess I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the meaning and importance of objects, records, physical ephemera… or around why it is so important, so meaningful, but at the same time so light and fragile. Incoherent thoughts — I will try & complete them at some point in the future.

This past weekend found me again in Philadelphia for a memorial service for my Gran (and I also got to attend my brother’s girlfriend’s little brother’s bar mitzvah!). Now I’m back in Providence, trying to finally get organized, and do some serious work of drawing and printing. It’s been damp & humid here, pretty gray… the sun occasionally breaks through, but the weather isn’t helping my generally low emotions that much. What does help, though: bike riding, helping out at my friends’ CSA farm where I am doing a work-share, being outside… and I’m sure getting some work accomplished will help as well, when that finally starts happening.

cleanups with benefits

March 24, 2009 at 1:21 am

… such as finding cool old drawings in the flat-file. Here’s a detail of one that I was psyched to come across a couple of days ago, complete with tea-stains. Clicking will take you to the full image.

community barge detail

I made this, as far as I can remember, at the request of artist, animator, and friend Dave Fischer for inclusion in his “soulless publication of the arts” Providence Machines. PM was a PDF zine, which means that it had no paper distribution, nor was it intended to be read on-screen: you download it, print it out, staple it, then read it. Dave did the layout by hand-coding PostScript (a language that computers use to describe pages to their printers, which humans are never really supposed to lay eyes or hands on…).

The issue that my drawing appeared in (download here) was about cities and the future. Dave had asked me to draw a vision of a future city (to go along with the Italian Futurists’ manifesto which he was planning to reproduce in the zine), a little while after the 2004 Oak & Troy mill-space evictions.

Nadav Benjamin, one of my then-housemates, put together this slideshow of his photos from fall-winter 2003-2004. The photos are mostly of people in their rooms/studios/spaces, as well as some pictures of shows, and one of snow seen from our fire escape. I’m in there, once with an awkward haircut, and once behind a mouse mask (identifiable by my trademark habit of grabbing the edge of my shirt at shows, to stop myself from nervously picking at my hangnails…).

After being evicted, we all were really scattered and thrown to the winds. This poster also comes from the months after the evictions: it felt like we were all just eking out our existences with corners and scraps of spaces. People were definitely dreaming about having a giant building/city where you could live with all your friends, and which you could take anywhere in order to avoid zoning laws, fire codes, and any kind of municipal control… so this drawing definitely comes as a product of that collective dream.

Also, Jacqui had just given me a box of hard colored pencils, which I think is where this red/pink one came from, and I was way psyched on perspective. Obviously.

This post is also an apology for erroneously posting my to-do list to this public page… then retracting it in a fluster 7 or so hours later when I realized what I had done.

My to-do lists are absurdly extended & ongoing, and as Jacob commented, every one of them could well begin with:

  • make to-do list

which would then be crossed off. (and, uh, I actually do do that on some of my lists. sometimes it seems like just sitting down to make the list is an accomplishment in itself.)

Making them on this ‘updates’ page, then putting a bookmark to their category in the bookmark toolbar, is mostly a trick to get myself to a) look at the list when I am sitting at the computer, then b) remember that I need to get stuff done, and c) get up and walk away from the computer! Working well so far (one week in).

The lists I make are a pretty informal and unprocessed look at my life, and would probably actually be more interesting, in some sense, than what I do write about here, which is relatively filtered… But if I’m going to write lists that have any kind of usefulness, they need to be private. whoops!

Edit: a sample to-do list is now posted as its own page. Yes I am thinking about all of that stuff, or the same amount or more of different stuff. Yikes.

“we are not frightened by ruins”

March 15, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The deadline was here, so I paused on other work and wrote this short essay about my Buenaventura Durruti poster, Providence, and the 2002-2003 mill demolitions in Eagle Square. The print is being included in a book of/about anarchist art, which will be published by the UK Anarchist Federation. They asked for some writing to go along with it: specifically looking for artists to articulate their visions for a post-revolutionary society, and the connections that they see between art and anarchism… in this case, between building (or architecture, though not formal “architecture”) and anarchism.

I wrote & re-wrote and, finally, in a last-ditch attempt to get it all to make sense, wrangled everything I was trying to say through an actual outline. Writing outlines has always been extremely difficult from me — this one was no different, but it proved essential to organizing my ideas and presenting them logically.

Here it is! I posted an edited & improved version March 26th. If you have thoughts, please comment below, or email me, if you prefer: secretdoor.projects (at) gmail.com. Thank you!

durruti poster

We Are Not Frightened By Ruins

an essay for a half-demolished textile mill, a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, and a world that is constantly changing.

Jean G. Cozzens

I made the drawing for this print in 2002, in response to the demolition of old factory buildings that I loved. The Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, to which I had recently moved, was dense with massive brick structures that had once housed the operations of the textile industry. The buildings had been crowded and active from the early 1800s to the 1940s, during the time when Providence was a center of industrial production and innovation. In the 1960s and 70s, that era sputtered to an end as fabric manufacturers fled the Northeast, first to the Southern states, then overseas.

The mills that the textile companies left behind, built huge and super-sturdy to hold vast arrays of weaving, spinning, and knitting machines, offered flexible spaces that could serve almost any purpose. Though no longer featured on the letterheads of the companies whose names they still bore, they remained heavily utilized, since their rough and un-precious state meant that anything could happen within them. Their interiors were divided up to provide an inexpensive, versatile home for local businesses and workshops, the few light industries and production facilities that still remained in the city, and the creative studios – and cheap, illegal residences – of artists and musicians.

In order to inhabit this space, the tenants had built lofts, ceilings, kitchens, bed-nooks, studio corners and work tables, practice rooms, recording enclosures, skate ramps, bathrooms, libraries. Some areas had been left open and spacious, in order to host the crowd that would attend a rock show, or just to let light flood in through the high windows. Even in the adaptations that were purely utilitarian, built by the secondary industries that had replaced the departed textile companies, self-construction and customization had accumulated, sub-dividing the spaces and providing creatively for storage, offices, work areas, and break rooms.

The buildings had been transformed from a scale meant for the mass-production of a commodity to a variety of scales that were uniquely human. They had been customized to the users’ individual needs by a purposeful combination of construction and sculpture, guided by whimsy as well as by necessity.

 *  *  *

In 2001, I was living in an old mill that was being painstakingly renovated by a group of artist-developers, across the street from a 14-acre tract of factories that were slated to be torn down to make way for a shopping plaza. Around the city, many other factory buildings were being demolished as well, due to neglect, arson, or the desire to make space for new buildings, parking lots, or highways.

I had always been fascinated by old buildings. At the time, in my third year of architecture school, I was becoming more and more frustrated with contemporary attitudes towards construction, and more and more interested in old ways of building. To me, the demolition of the mills was senseless and wasteful: it seemed that it would never again be possible to create buildings that had the quality, aesthetics, and strength of the old factories. I knew of no new buildings that were designed with such conscious care, or constructed with materials that were as simple and well-crafted. The mills were a valuable and severely limited resource. Why would you destroy something that could never be built again, something that was locally relevant and specific to our city – in favor of making a cheap cookie-cutter replication of a shopping center that could be found anywhere across the country?

I started getting involved in the activist struggle to try to save the buildings that were slated for demolition – the first ‘activist’ project I had felt strongly enough about to really jump into. I got to know some of the artists who were living in the buildings, and little by little became a part of the communities that had grown up there. Fostered by the cheap rent and endless possibilities offered by the giant, rough spaces, a shared life was flourishing, vibrant and creative, and as I began to participate in it my outrage and anger only grew stronger. Not only were the shopping plaza’s developers destroying the physical structures, they were displacing my friends and dismantling the culture and the structure of our community, as well as other communities that were supported, in different ways, by the small businesses and workshops harbored in the mill buildings.

 *  *  *

A fellow activist pointed me in the direction of some reading that was new to me, and I began to find global parallels for the dynamics at work in my neighborhood. I became aware that the issue went far beyond this group of mill buildings and their tenants, and that we were yet another iteration of the way that global capital tended to deal with local uniqueness and variation. Slick-looking, centrally-controlled chain stores being promoted over less-polished, homegrown businesses and projects; the replacement of the ‘light industries’ and production-based businesses with ‘service industries’ and consumer-based shopping; the destruction of complicated historic landscapes to create flattened, simplified new ground; the privileging of the marketable over the un-marketable, the new over the old, the safe over the quirky, the branded over the local… it had all happened before, was still happening everywhere.

The campaign to ‘save the mills’ progressed, with setbacks, accomplishments, and frustrations. After much heated debate, a certain amount of political art, and many impassioned City Council meetings, the company conceded to re-designing their development with ‘mill-style’ brick facades, creating a bike path, and preserving four of the fourteen original buildings. The rest would be demolished, and all the existing tenants would be, of course, evicted. Our high-profile protest had raised awareness of the contribution of arts and industry to the city, and had probably pushed the developers to do a little bit better than their banal norm. The group I had worked with claimed at least a partial victory.

As the weeks passed and work on the site began, however, what we had achieved seemed more and more symbolic and hollow. A feeling crept over me that the most crucial element had been left out: we had not been able to protect any of the messy, useful, inexpensive possibilities that the mills had offered. I began to wonder about the love I had initially felt for the old mills – by focusing on their physical structures, had I been missing what was really important about them?

 *  *  *

Even if the mills were saved and restored, even if the rebuilding was carried out by well-intentioned developers, there would still be limits on who could rent there, on what could happen inside. If the renovations were done with care, skilled labor, and quality materials, a certain amount of preciousness would result: the desire to protect the newly pristine structure from inadvertent abuse by working artists or production facilities. Even if the buildings could find owners who were excited to harbor a creative mess, the financial and legal demands that would be placed on them – to keep the investors, the lender banks, the city inspectors and code officials all satisfied – would inevitably tamp down much of the possibilities that the owners might have originally envisioned. In any case, the freedom that comes directly from living or working in a somewhat neglected rough-and-tumble structure would vanish. Whether demolished or converted, the mills would cease to provide space for industry, productive businesses, small entrepreneurship, and creative work. Renovation would cast the buildings in amber, preserving them while also freezing their ability to transform, to harbor activity, life, innovation, production, to be messy and changeable.

In one of the books I was reading, I had come across this quotation:

We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts, and that world is growing this minute.

It was printed in a large ‘inspiring’ typeface, and was attributed to Buenaventura Durruti. Who? There was little explanation or context in that book, and the only further research I did at that time was to figure out that he had been in an anarchist militia in Spain, fighting against the fascists in the 1930s. Durruti’s words seemed to speak directly to me, comforting and encouraging me in the face of the piles of ruins that, by that point, were indeed growing at a steady clip across the street from my living space. He reminded me that buildings aren’t relics, they are not irreplaceable, they don’t need to be regarded as precious. They had been built, after all, by people like us, creative and inventive and hard-working. They were useful, yes – but we will be able to build useful things again, if we decide that that’s what we want to do. The quotation also reinforced my growing awareness that what was important wasn’t the physical structure, as much as the life that happened within it; and that that life could carry on in the hearts of humans even if the world was destroyed around them.

These sentences from Durruti offered me hope for the re-creation of possibilities, the re-opening of the world of action even after this destruction of space for freedom. I had been wanting to make a poster about the mill demolitions, to share my sadness about their loss, and it became clear that the Durruti quote – and the hope it spoke of – belonged on that poster. In February of 2002, on a sunny-but-still-cold day, I found myself sitting outside on a pile of rubble to draw one of the mills in the middle of its destruction… and a couple of days later, realized that I had made the drawing that would go along with Durruti’s words.

 *  *  *

It took me a long time to make that poster. I had other commitments, to school and to work; and I wanted the print to be really coherent, not just hastily dashed off. I decided that I wanted to dig up more of what Durruti had said to include on the poster, because I felt that the quote as I had first read it wasn’t connected clearly enough to history and labor struggles, and that “building a new world” might be able to be interpreted as justification or encouragement for renovating the old mills into fancy new apartments. Finally, in the fall of 2006, during a break between other projects, I started researching a little bit more about the Spanish Civil War, and found a couple of versions, in Spanish, of an extended excerpt of Pierre Van Passen’s interview with Durruti, from which the quote I had found had been taken. Using my basic Spanish and recruiting the help of some friends, I was able to make a more accurate translation of the passage.

I worked on the poster off and on through 2007, then printed it in January of 2008 – six years after I had begun it. My thoughts have continued to develop and change, but I find that the quote still speaks to me very strongly in March 2009, as I print a second run of the posters, a little more than a year later. I continued to live in Providence after I finished architecture school, and watched my city continue along the same paths that had led to the demolition of the mills. The city’s marketing team focused its ‘re-birth’ efforts on promoting what a great hub it was for creative people – at the same time as it had its workers shut down independent show spaces, kick artists out of their studios, and scrape screenprinted posters off of walls and streetlight poles. Destruction was not only carried out by bulldozers: I saw ‘upscale’ mill renovations continue to push industries and workshops out of their buildings, watched the housing market become absurdly inflated by investors’ speculation, then witnessed the bubble burst, my neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures in a flurry of board-ups. All the supposedly constructive strategies of modern capitalism – actions based on the logic of profit – seemed intent on ‘blasting and ruining’ the world that we live in.

 *  *  *

In the years since making the original drawing for this poster, up to the present moment, I have thought constantly about buildings and spaces, measuring them and drawing them, observing (formally as well as informally) how people live in them, and of course, experiencing built spaces myself every day. All of the places I’ve lived were shared with groups of people: sometimes under headings such as “collective” or “cooperative”, sometimes taking on no title, but just living together, respecting and supporting each other, giving each other time and space to be alone while sharing other aspects of our lives.

I’ve also been part of various group projects, among them a community garden, a shared shop for sculpture and woodworking, a horizontally-organized afterschool arts program, and the collaborative designing and construction of a collective-house kitchen. In each of these situations, I’ve seen different models of interaction play out. People choose different ways to use, share, or refuse power; give each other freedom to experiment, take risks, and fail; challenge each other to learn new skills; figure out ways of communicating their needs, sharing space, re-thinking their expectations, building new alliances… all to be able to accomplish more than they could have on their own.

Over time, these spaces – the project spaces as well as the living spaces – have changed, and changed, and changed again, to fit the lives of the people who are using them. Some of the changes are repeated or adjusted on an hourly or daily basis, such as moving chairs into the right arrangement for a conversation, or setting up a big table to work on a project. Less frequently, there’s an opportunity to nail together shelves, re-organize a room, or re-position office dividers, in order to store tools better, change up the space, or get some privacy. Once in a long while, it’s possible to tear down some of the walls and re-think how the whole place could be organized, starting from an open floor plan.

Even in apartments or commercial offices that were originally intended for humans, the inhabitants actively modify them as much as they are able to, just as the artists and other tenants modified their spaces in the giant mills. Very few of these modifications have any input from professional architects – yet these are the crucial actions that make our spaces inhabitable and useful for our daily lives. The ‘architecture’ I had learned about in school – in which buildings were designed by architects, built by construction crews, and then lived in, passively, by ordinary people – was very different from this model of ongoing, incremental change.

Just as we practice new ways of relating to each other, trying to create new models for non-hierarchical interaction, we are also testing out our relationships with the space around us. Sometimes we slip into habits, getting stuck in patterns of social interaction that we find hard to change. Sometimes our space hems us in, restricts us from doing what we’d like with it, doesn’t allow the kind of interactions that we want to have. Occasionally, however, we are able to actually create a space that fits us; we are able to succeed in changing our frustrating ways of interacting. Just as we modify the way the spaces we inhabit are set up, we are able to build new networks of exchange, learning, and mutual support.

 *  *  *

This understanding offers me new insight on the quotation from Durruti. I wonder if the new structures that we carry in our hearts are not just physical spaces, but are the relationships we build and practice among ourselves.

Implicit in Durruti’s thought is the conviction that we are building this new structure now, already, at this very moment, as we creatively practice living together every day. We are not waiting for society to collapse or for centralized power to wither away before we begin living the lives we want to live. Risking, learning, and growing can happen at any moment, before the ‘revolution’ as well as after the disaster. These attempts, our continual practices of listening to and understanding each other, working and living together in co-operation, are already becoming the the materials from which we are building our new world.

The former textile mills remain an inspiration to me, for the flexibility of their spaces and the way that they can harbor a growing creative and productive life within them. I have also been inspired by the communities that we continue to create in the rest of our city, in small apartments and in garages and basements, in garden plots and backyards, in mill spaces where we still have them, in kitchens, on sidewalks, and in the streets. All of these places, constructed by the profit-focused mechanisms of our current society, are problematic and barely functioning: they have already been left to us in ruins. However ill-suited or restrictive they might be, they are our raw material, and they have a lot to teach us.

Instead of nostalgically re-creating old building types, though, we will need to imagine new spaces and develop new methods of construction that will fit us better, that will help foster our changing lives. The right forms for buildings, and the right structures for society, cannot come from the drafting table of a single, radically enlightened architect or anarchist. We will figure them out together, beginning with how we are living together now, starting from the skills and materials we already know.

The vitality of our lives together, and of whatever new society we build, will depend on the fact that our structures and relationships will not ever be fixed into a ‘perfect’ form, will never be completely known or fully understood. We will always be making new experiments, trying, failing often, succeeding occasionally, learning from our experience, and trying again. At times, we will have to ruin even the structures we create ourselves, whether they are societal or physical, so they do not become petrified and immovable. What I ultimately take from Buenaventura Durruti’s words is that we cannot be afraid to dismantle our lives – we must continually un-build and re-build the various frameworks of our own existence – to keep them flexible, to allow us and our communities to continue to change and grow.

Pierre Van Passen (a journalist):

And even if you win – you do know, don’t you, that you’re going to inherit piles of ruins?

Buenaventura Durruti:

…We have always lived in misery, and we will accommodate ourselves to it for some time yet. Don’t forget, though, that the workers are the only producers of wealth – we, the workers, run the machines in the factories, we extract coal and minerals from the mines, we built the cities… Why shouldn’t we rebuild them – new and better – to replace that which is destroyed?

Ruins do not scare us. We know that we will inherit nothing more than ruins, because the bourgeoisie will try to destroy the world in the last phase of their history. But, I repeat, we are not frightened by ruins, because we carry a new world in our hearts, murmuring forcefully – a world which is growing this very instant.



brief note of some influences / further reading ::

  • Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia
  • Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn
  • New Urban Arts‘ philosophy, practice, and existence
  • Nabeel Hamdi: Housing Without Houses
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper
  • John McPhee: The Control of Nature
  • Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed
  • CrimethInc Collective: the Harbinger newsletter, and other writings
  • Christopher Alexander and others: A Pattern Language
  • plus lots of ongoing conversations with awesome folks…


January 10, 2009 at 6:46 am

here are two fortunes I received when I was in Phila. with my family, showing the fallibility of the fortune cookie predictor logic. after I opened the cookie containing the bottom fortune, I claimed the extra cookie that my gran didn’t want, and it held the top fortune for me:

one right, one wrong

… thus, by the cookie’s command, I’m in that new years mode where you gotta change everything around: do the long-put-off improvements, buy things you’ve been needing for a while, fix the broken, sort out the old nameless piles, throw things away, and close the book on unfinished projects.

so even though I am making big changes, and each day brings a lot of transformation, it also feels like I am treading water: ever since I was a kid, I’ve had to de-organize before I could re-organize, and bigger transitions mean more time spent in the de-organized state. there’s also lots of logistics & organization necessary, which is not my strong suit. even when printing, which should be the straightforward part, I’ve been encountering technical issues… part of me thinks “I should know how to do this by now!” and part thinks “this is how the world is, always learning…”

here, extracted from an close-to-collapsing pile of stuff on the pantry counter of my parents’ house, is a key example of “where I got it from”:


I mean, come on, tell me a better way to keep track of little tiny hardware!

adam ryder photo

my friends Adam Ryder and Brian Rosa are having an art opening for their photography of high-tension electric power line landscapes: tonight, Saturday the 10th, 6-9 pm, at the Stairwell Gallery on Broadway in Providence. inter-urban wanderlust dreams. there will also be coffee by cafe intelligencia. don’t miss!

the last night of the fruit & produce warehouse

March 25, 2008 at 8:29 am

Last Sunday, and another Sunday a couple of weeks before that, M— & I got up early(ish) and met up to go visit the old fruit & produce warehouse on Harris Ave. It’s being torn down, “legally”, in the same way that all demolitions of historic buildings in Providence are legal. Art In Ruins has the whole story, more links, many photographs, and comments from various people. Here‘s the ‘street view’ of it from last year, though who knows how long that link will last…

The demolition of this building is a shame and a crime. Along with a couple of way-too-large, brightly-lit branding/signs on redevelopment projects, golden retrievers being walked up & down Broadway, and the city’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism (yup, those all belong together, folks!), it is one more reason on my list of reasons to leave Providence (which somehow hasn’t gotten long enough yet to a point where I actually leave…).

(image from Art In Ruins!)

When we were there on Sunday, I brought a measuring tape and went around measuring some of the construction details. When the warehouse was originally built, it was 965 feet long (about 100 of those feet were shorn off in 1998 when they built the Rt. 95/Rt. 6 & 10 interchange, which was also when the warehouse was finally closed). Though functional and utilitarian, and built on a massive scale to accommodate the trains and trucks that would pull up next to its loading docks, the building is clearly designed to be used by humans, at a human scale. It was a distribution center for fruits & vegetables, and though the building itself was huge, many small produce companies rented two or three or five of its 15-foot bays, and all had the same connection to the same regional/interstate network. Deep rigid awnings covered the docks to protect people and produce from the weather, but the first floor ceiling was extra-high to make room for a wide window above the awnings (seen in the photo above) which would light the spaces in which the workers spent their time. Compare with modern distribution centers — I couldn’t readily find an image of a really huge one, but you’ve seen them all over the countryside — there’s a massive BJ’s warehouse on Rt. 146 between here and Worcester if you need an example.

The basic function is the same (loading docks, trucks pull up, stuff comes in, stuff goes out) but any kind of details or proportions that would give the building dignity, rhythm, or identity has been cost-adjusted out of the plans — except for that nice white stripe. Natural light is dispensed with (making and maintaining a window is more expensive than making a wall, plus the building is easier to climate-control). The location (somewhere outside of the city) and the ownership structure (centrally owned and operated) both dictate that each warehouse will be accessed and used by one company only — the larger the company, the cheaper their costs will be, the huger a warehouse they can build, the larger a share of the regional economy they can control. The old Providence fruit & produce warehouse was significant not just because it was ‘historic’, and beautiful not only in its decay: from its beginning, it was a structure that fostered a different way of doing business — small-scale instead of massive, local-connected-to-regional instead of national-dominating-local, concerned with human life and experience, instead of concerned with spending less money. It was built by a city that had as its aim fostering better access to food and better business and work opportunities for its citizens — not by a company interested in increasing its market share and profits. All these things are not only political or idealistic: they were, from the start, built into the structure and the proportions of the building itself.

I was interested in paying some closer attention to some of these dimensions and details: what was left, at least. Drawing is pretty much the best way for me to give something my extended attention, comprehend the details, and make sense of connections between different things. Photos are helpful as reference after the fact, especially when time is limited, but the process of making a drawing is crucial to actually understanding something. M— is working on an epic drawing (which is probably going to be about 30 feet long!) of the entire length of the building, so she was also looking for details (of the rubble, as well as of the structure…). On Sunday, only three of the building’s 71 bays were left, and the last remaining cast-iron staircase had been pulled down out of its opening, so we had no way to go up to the second floor (besides a risky climb up a rubble-filled elevator shaft…). Most of the measurements of the upper floor could be inferred up from the facade at the ground floor, or counted off from the regular dimensions of the cinderblocks in the wall that had been built to close off the shortened end (at right in the photo below).

However, we were getting all nerdy and attempting to figure out the dimension of the bricks which were used to fill in the lower part of the walls on the second floor. We found some bricks sitting around the rubble, and measured those, and the widths of the mortar that remained attached to them… but then realized that they were the not the same bricks, but instead were bricks from the elevator shacks that had sat on top of the roof, and were (may have been?) added later… thus probably had a slightly different dimension. (They had a different texture, were a different color, and also most of them were hollow inside.) We scouted around for some of the other bricks on the ground, and found one big chunk, but the side facing up was the inside of the wall (much less even in spacing and mortaring than the outside), and it was too heavy to turn over. As I was trying to measure it, the cops pulled up and we decided to cheese it (of course, at an extremely leisurely and relaxed pace).

Well, tonight, Scøtt and I went back, at around 5 am (still too dark to take decent pictures) and found only one bay of the building remaining. The second floor of the second-to-last bay was falling down at a slope… and underneath it, sitting on the rubble pile, below a broken piece of concrete dangling precariously by a couple of strands of rebar… a large section of the 2nd floor bricks that we had wanted to measure.

  • length: 8″
  • length with mortar: 8 1/4″ to 8 1/2″
  • height: 2 1/4″
  • height of horizontal mortar strip: 3/4″
  • so, height of brick course including mortar: 3″

goodbye, building.

Here are the rest of my measurements from last Sunday.

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