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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 the shadows and their windows (which, err, may never have been aligned in the first place…). I’m going to be making some new prints of just the building. The main goal of all this computer work is to a) remove the excavator from the image, and b) turn the three colors that delineated the building in the original print (sky blue, purple transparent shadow, yellow transparent darks) into two: a sky color and a transparent shadow color, both of which will be variable. I’ll probably print two editions, each one in a different colorway.

Screenshot! These working colors are not even close to the final colors, don’t worry.

working on the layers…

One interesting thing I’ve come up against is that the original pencil drawing is currently misplaced, or possibly lost… in any case, I don’t have it here in Providence. So I’m working from the rubyliths and the print, and from the small cuts that show up in the scans of the transparencies, revealing where I made a tentative drawn line with the knife before pulling all the rubylith away. Zooming-in on the computer allows for much more detailed work than the full-scale physical reality of the transparencies does… but, as Meg noted, I find myself getting totally sucked in to tiny modifications that really won’t show up so much in the final print. Is that the requisite trade-off?

after photoshop cleanup… giving too much attention to the super tiny details.

A question for you all: I want to have some text at the bottom of the print. My initial instinct is to have it say “Providence”, but that might be too much like these prints I made in ’05. Would it be too similar? Should it just say “PROV”? (The main caveat for that is that there is a restaurant here called “prov”, with an umlaut, that I don’t necessarily want to be promoting…) “PVD”, the airport abbreviation? Should it say nothing? I want it to have some text element, partly because I like drawing interesting letters, partly so I am not simply ripping off my old drawing from the 2002 poster, and especially: so people know it is a specific building in a specific place, not just a classic late-20s-style setback skyscraper!

Thoughts on that text question would be much appreciated. To give you all some context, the purpose of this print is two-fold, like the purpose of the “Providence” prints from ’05. Purpose #1 is to sell them and make money, because I am in pretty sore need of it after a summer of not making much money. Purpose #2, which is on at least equal standing with the first one, is to create a seminal image that people will hang on their walls, love, and associate with the city they love. [Additionally, I might someday use it to realize one of Julian’s clever ideas from 2001 or so… but more on that later!]

In other news, I got new glasses finally and a new cell phone cause the old one broke, I’m working on multiple projects at once which is challenging and enjoyable at this point (aka, before the deadlines are close), and the past couple of weeks have been beautiful weather; fall is perfect. I’m very excited to be reading Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy — the intricacy of the language forces me to read extremely slowly, it’s great. Also I’m making plans to travel to New Orleans and possibly Arizona and Utah in the winter… a Working Vacation during which I will make lots of drawings, and hopefully at least one print! Any recommendations on places or buildings to check out?

no wait, change it back, I changed my mind!
off of Brook St., a couple of weeks ago…


  1. if superman is what you think of, maybe it should be a superman shield logo overlapping the building with the letters ‘PVD’ instead of the S, somehow…

    Comment by npr — October 7, 2009 @ 11:02 pm
  2. my immediate circle of friends always referred to this as “the ghostbusters building”….. I am whimsically imagining if you did a limited alternate print run with text ZUUL or GOZER instead of PROV PRIDE or whatever …. you know, ala upside-down airplane stamps? instant mega-collectability value goldmine… just sayin!

    Comment by rob — October 8, 2009 @ 3:22 am
  3. Jean, nice to see you’re still out there making things happen. I suggest using the street address as the text label, and if you get inspired, you can use the pattern of the nine-digit zip code bar code for the border.

    Comment by Jonathan — October 8, 2009 @ 11:06 am
  4. i like the idea of a local word, or even a local code. something us Providites would know. it would be nice to have a newer generation version of: http://livingoffhope.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/mad-peck2.jpg

    aside from the zip, 401 is also an option. but yes the street name would also work.

    one question i have is whether the text functions as some kind of title for the building, for the scene, or is just part of the image. the name of the street could be incorporated as a street sign, and then there’s text, but it’s part of the scene and not a label that is being overlaid on the scene.

    another jumping off point for a word is something that references the location of the building within the city. since it’s downtown, it really touches many other neighborhoods. eastside is on one side. west side. south providence. could be neat to have the names of those cardinal directions / neighborhoods along the border. with nopro on the top edge border, eastside on the right edge, etc etc.

    also: i love the image. daniel and i can’t wait to buy a copy and support your beautiful work!

    Comment by BearerFriend — October 8, 2009 @ 10:14 pm
  5. maybe you should reveal to all the secret and illustrious name of that building via the print. a building like that has to have a name. In scranton there was one major building that was tall and they called it scranton life. My bank happens to be in that building so I know which it is.

    The owner, O’Connor Capital Partners, has renamed the building 100 Westminster for its street address in the city’s financial district

    here’s an article about how they renamed it

    Comment by sarah — October 9, 2009 @ 2:13 am
  6. Sarah! Your instinct is totally good… and I think it’s what I’m gonna do. Stephen Brownell magically — coincidentally? — mailed me an old postcard that actually has the secret and illustrious original name of the building on it (as well as a view of KP from when that building was the *only* tall building around). So that name will be on the poster, as well as “Providence” and the roman-numeral date of the building’s construction, which is carved into the facade along with the requisite slightly-fascist 20s bas-reliefs… YES. time passes, a decision is made…

    Comment by jean — November 15, 2009 @ 7:44 am
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