The Dirt Palace hides inside of a burnt down abandoned library in the heart of Olneyville Square, minutes away from downtown Providence. Taking from its name, the Palace inconspicuously lies behind the dirt and decay of its run-down industrial home. Its eclectically curated storefront window display hardly does justice to the 9000 square foot all women artist commune behind its walls. It’s a place made up of myths: part witch coven, part underground punk collective, and part demented dollhouse. Inside, a print shop, wood shop, film studio, textile studio, zine library, band practice room, communal kitchen, and social ballroom make up this self-described “feminist artist collective.” Yet it is the women of the palace that have—literally, physically—made it one of the most sustainable artistic communities in Providence. Throughout its 13 years, 35 artists have called the Dirt Palace their creative haven. Currently artists Xander Marro, Pippi Zornoza, J.R. Uretsky, Olivia Horvath, Muffy Brandt, Mimi Chrzanowski, and Jieun Reiner make up the Dirt Palace, working in almost every medium including printmaking, performance, film, and digital media. They also share weekly meals, plan events at the Palace, and provide unapologetic and unyielding support for the work they each produce.
It’s hard to tell the story of Dirt Palace, to place it within larger contexts of Providence or other women-only-spaces, without diluting its generative and continuing history. There is no singular story of the Dirt Palace to tell, no one narrative that will do the experiences created within the collective justice. Still, this is just one, albeit inherently incomplete, vision of the Palace.
In 2000, artist Xander Marro came upon 14 Olneyville Square. She quickly saw the potential of the boarded up, leaky, floor-less warehouse. A cohort gathered of similar-minded artists who wanted to build an all female community within the Providence underground scene. “It happened very quietly, it was a very organic and amorphous process,” Marro remembers. “A group formed who wanted to work together and started making the space inhabitable.” They began tearing down walls and building their own, wiring electricity, fixing plumbing, essentially creating a palace from dirt. The Palace grew and interacted within an already vibrant underground artistic scene in Providence, including collectives like the now late Fort Thunder. Although at the time there were less female artists within this community, the members of the Palace did not see their intentions as reactionary. Rather as member Pippi Zornoza describes, “we were really just interested in what happened when 7 women collaborate in a space.”
Ownership of this space has allowed the group to establish visibility within their community while safeguarding the legality of the collective, Zornoza explains. Lack of ownership had been the death sentence for past Providence collectives, and sparked a heated debate over the importance of artist run spaces within the city. In May 2002 when Fort Thunder fell to bulldozers that cleared the buildings of Eagle Square, setting up strip mall in its wake. Rather than having to build and start again and again, Dirt Palace had to re-imagine what a collective could look like. Instead of establishing a community based non-profit like the hugely successful AS220, Marro and Zornoza own the building that houses The Dirt Palace, renting the studio space to the collective’s selected members. Also unlike other collective spaces, privacy, the individual and personal ownership is respected above communal sharing.
This is perhaps where the “feminist” potential of the space comes in. With ownership comes empowerment. As Dirt Palace member Olivia Horvath explains, “calling a space feminist doesn’t make it that way, that identity needs to be built.” The artists are expected to contribute into the maintenance of Dirt Palace physically and logistically, often being thrown into new tasks. Beyond physical upkeep, current members are encouraged to re-imagine the organization of the collective, in order to ensure the Dirt Palace’s goals and operations continue to serve its community. “Female empowerment becomes very real in the space where you are left with actual responsibilities,” Palace member J.R. Uretsky adds.
The communal and personal stake each member fosters in Dirt Palace ultimately creates a collective that works for the individual. Beyond the utopic potential of alternative sites and communal organizing, Dirt Palace offers its members a group of friends—a tangible community where art making is validated and facilitated.
-Ana Alvarez, Managing Editor
All images provided by the Dirt Palace