Date December 19, 2022
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Through workshops, grants and partnerships, Brown Arts Institute deepens ties with local artists

In recent years, BAI has cultivated close, long-term relationships with Providence-area creators through financial assistance, workshops and residencies — enriching the art scene and bolstering learning at Brown.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Before the novel coronavirus began spreading across the U.S. in 2020, Jason Tranchida created graphics and brand experiences with his creative agency LLAMAproduct. His partner, Matthew Lawrence, ran Law and Order Party, a popular arts and culture newsletter. 

But as COVID-19 shuttered galleries, theaters, concert halls and conference centers, work and income dwindled for the Providence-based pair.

“I wasn’t comfortable telling people to leave the house, so then I just did six months of scrambling,” Lawrence said of planning for Law and Order Party content. “I wrote in the newsletter, ‘Here’s an outdoor thing you can see from your car! Here’s a Zoom opera!’ But people just got tired of all that after a while.”

Isolated at home, Tranchida and Lawrence turned their attention to a new creative project: Scandalous Conduct, a multimedia exploration of a little-known 1919 U.S. Navy effort to entrap and prosecute gay men in Newport, R.I. The duo had plenty of spare time, but they were short on funds, equipment, performance space and sound advice.

That’s where the Brown Arts Institute came in.

For the last two years, BAI — an arts research enterprise at Brown University that promotes innovative and interdisciplinary creative arts and arts scholarship through curriculum and program development— has worked closely with the two creators as they shed light on a hidden piece of Rhode Island history. In Spring 2020, the institute awarded them funds as part of an Artist Development Grant program intended to help keep Ocean State artists afloat amid the pandemic. Throughout much of 2020 and 2021, they logged on to Zoom for monthly brainstorming and critiquing sessions with Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, associate director of partnerships and engagement at BAI. In Spring 2021, they came to the Brown campus for a public conversation about their creative projects. And in a November 2022 residency at Brown’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, they worked with Brown students and community artists to bring a century-old story to life on film.

“BAI offered support to our project early on and has continued to do so,” Tranchida said. “We met with Sophia for monthly check-ins where she would ask us about our progress and we would spitball ideas, and that was fantastic for our creative process. And with this residency, we got access to a performance space and equipment we don’t have at home.”

According to Avery Willis Hoffman, artistic director of BAI, the institute’s engagement with Tranchida and Lawrence represents an intentional effort to deepen relationships with Rhode Island artists — a commitment that benefits both the artists and the University, she said.

With access to BAI’s studios and performance spaces, state-of-the-art technology and scholarly resources, Providence-area artists engaged in long-term partnership with the institute can experiment with different mediums, explore new narratives and push the envelope in ways they may not have been able to do in their own homes or studios — begetting original work that raises provocative questions and draws attention to pressing social issues.

Meanwhile, as more practicing artists visit campus, students at Brown who aspire to creative careers have more opportunities to learn from and work with them — whether in classes or workshops or as hired assistants or interns. Faculty, too, have more chances to connect with area artists in ways that might enrich or redirect their research. And for the broader community, artists’ increased presence at BAI means more thought-provoking exhibitions, public talks and performances on campus.

“BAI can only be a force for transformation if it joins forces with the world’s most innovative creators — many of whom live right here in Rhode Island,” Hoffman said. “By building long-term relationships with local artists, Brown students and scholars can witness ongoing artistic practices and collaborate as they generate ideas, execute them, bring them into the world and continue important conversations. Getting that hands-on experience is an excellent way for Brown students and researchers to learn and advance their scholarship.”

Offering funding, time and space

Tranchida and Lawrence are among more than a dozen local artists who received financial support from BAI amid the pandemic — and who have been enriching the Brown and Providence communities since.

In early 2020, M.J. Robinson was already preparing to leave a regular job to pursue freelance art. Robinson, who uses they/them pronouns, was juggling creative jobs as a museum educator, art teacher and community gardener-in-residence when the pandemic hit. They managed to keep most of those positions by pivoting online, but they did lose some smaller income streams. 

Robinson was thrilled to apply for and receive one of 10 Artist Development Grants from BAI in those first few difficult months of the pandemic — not just because it provided some financial peace of mind, but also because it freed up time to work on a personal project: a portable portal. Co-created with their band Portal Rental, Robinson’s immersive exhibition takes visitors inside a simulated car wash with animation, music, live-action video and sound effects, and they hope to tour the creation around Providence in September 2023.

“I think in the culture we live in, creativity is sort of stripped from us because we live in survival mode,” Robinson said. “Not many people have enough time and disposable income to just play around with ideas and be creative for the sake of it. But for artists, that time is so important, and that is what this grant gave me.” 

Connecting with BAI through the grant program also allowed Robinson to gain valuable teaching experience, setting them up for success in later years. Robinson’s Zoom conversations with LaCava-Bohanan led them to organize an event called Paper People for Grownups, where Robinson taught Brown students and Providence residents how to explore their past and future selves through crafting. Leading that session, Robinson said, helped them net employment at Providence’s Mount Pleasant Library teaching a series of creative workshops. 

“Running a workshop at Brown was a big confidence boost and a great opportunity to get constructive feedback,” Robinson said. “That experience set me up for a successful series at Mount Pleasant, and since then I’ve been able to run similar workshops for other organizational sponsors.”

Jazzmen Lee-Johnson, a multidisciplinary artist who earned a master’s degree from Brown in 2015, said receiving an Artist Development Grant gave her time to work on a documentary film on the 1873 Colfax massacre in Louisiana with fellow grantee Joel Orloff, among other projects. And through that connection with BAI, she was able to use the Granoff Center’s large-format silk screen printer to create pieces for the exhibition “Not Never More,” an artistic response to a controversial historical wallpaper at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities.

For musician Leland Baker and dancer Orlando Hernandez, the Artist Development Grant program provided both a financial lifeline and a networking opportunity. After meeting in the program, the two spent a few months “jamming together,” Baker said. They ultimately collaborated on “Pass Me Not,” a performance and conversation hosted by the BAI that celebrates Black culture and the African diaspora.

LaCava-Bohanan said the pandemic-sparked Artist Development Grant program was so impactful that BAI renewed it in 2021, awarding funds to another five community artists. The local creators added vibrancy to BAI’s programming, hosting compelling talks and performances, showcasing art in some of the Granoff Center’s many exhibition spaces, co-teaching undergraduate courses and hosting workshops with Brown students. 

“When artists applied for the Artist Development Grants, they didn’t necessarily apply with a single project but instead shared information about their practice and needs,” LaCava-Bohanan said. “We reviewed applications with an eye toward our ability to support their practice beyond just funding. We were interested in creating true long-term partnerships with them.”

Pass Me Not


Leland Baker and Orlando Hernandez met through BAI's Artist Development Grant program — then collaborated on this tap and saxophone piece.

Exposing a Newport scandal

Tranchida and Lawrence have grown ever closer to BAI since early 2020, when they received those first grants. 

At the time, Tranchida said, they were already researching an extraordinary story they’d stumbled upon: In 1919, in an effort to crack down on homosexuality, the U.S. Navy recruited young male officers to go undercover in Newport’s YMCA and other local cruising spots and lure male civilians and fellow officers into sex. The young officers’ painstakingly detailed incident reports, preserved in a logbook now stored at the National Archives in Washington, led to the arrests of more than a dozen Newport men who had fallen prey to the entrapment scheme.

Months later, the pair of artists discovered that at the same time, Newport-based Navy officers were preparing a traveling production of an operetta based on the plot of “Jack and the Beanstalk” — and that many of the cast members performed in drag.

“It was really interesting to us that this Navy scandal and this drag operetta were happening simultaneously,” Tranchida said. “The Navy was taking advantage of Newport’s huge vaudeville and drag scene to entrap people, but they were also using elements of vaudeville and drag to entertain people. We wanted to mash those two things together and tell the two stories side by side, in a non-linear way.”

In 2021, the pair hired voice actors to read some of the Navy officers’ reports, creating an audio piece that aired during BAI’s Remaking the Real Festival. And in November 2022, they settled in for a weeklong residency at the Granoff Center’s Englander Studio, where they had access to a piano, a professional lighting grid, state-of-the-art audio equipment and several projectors. They hired Brown sophomore Vatsal Vemuri to play the “Jack and the Beanstalk” operetta score, and Brown/Trinity Rep master’s student Tobias Wilson was one of three paid actors hired to perform parts of the operetta and read the Navy incident reports.  

Brown gave us financial support, and definitely moral support... Without BAI, this journey would have been longer and harder, and maybe not possible.

Jason Tranchida
jason tranchida talking to two actors

Lawrence said the scenes they filmed at BAI were the springboard for a future multimedia installation they hope to exhibit in Newport and Providence in 2024. Lawrence is hopeful that their decision to creatively interweave officers’ accounts in the entrapment scheme with scenes from the operetta will draw attention to what progress society has made, and has yet to make, with respect to LGBTQ+ rights and equality in the last century.

“Queer and LGBTQ+ issues feel urgent right now,” Lawrence said. “We have marriage equality, and HIV is no longer a death sentence — but at the same time, trans people and sex workers are among those routinely subject to surveillance and arrested as a result of entrapment. So this entrapment scheme might have happened 100 years ago, but it’s still relevant today.”

Like many other community artists, the pair said they feel gratitude for the BAI’s long-term investment in their creative endeavors — and that their partnership with BAI is likely far from over. 

“Brown gave us financial support, and definitely moral support,” Tranchida said. “And now we have the opportunity to spend a week in this space, to get a crew of wonderful actors and musicians together, to mess around with three screens and three projectors, and focus only on this. Without BAI, this journey would have been longer and harder, and maybe not possible.”