This month, Providence artist-of-all-mediums Alan Metnick will show work at two galleries simultaneously. At Candita Clayton Gallery in Pawtucket, find 70+ pieces curated from five decades of artmaking, and at the Providence Art Club, photography of centuries-old Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
Careful, methodical synthesis of smaller elements is an evident theme in Alan’s work. From elaborate stained glass “wall and tunnel” sculptures to exquisitely detailed paintings of old mill buildings in Providence, Alan takes as much time as a piece requires. A wooden letterpress box he found two decades ago and painted black was only recently populated and completed with found natural objects: seeds, grasses, and pinecones found both in Poland and Swan Point.
In the late 1960s, with no prior experience but a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and a few years of sales under his belt, he applied to RISD as a summer transfer student in photography.
“There was really a creative energy there, and I didn’t really understand what it was at the time, but I wanted to make stuff and use my hands,” says Alan. “I thought I could take pictures.”
Inspired by mid-century European documentary photographers like Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, and Robert Frank, Alan saw the camera as an accessible jumping-off point to artmaking. At RISD, he discovered a natural knack for other visual mediums, like drawing. He later found silkscreening, which led to stained glass, which led to quilts, and so on.
Alan first visited Poland in 2004 to explore ancestral roots and document Auschwitz; when he brought home the first batch of black-and-white film to develop, he was struck by an image of a tombstone carving.
“I developed the film, saw the negative, and said, ‘Wow,’” says Alan. When it developed into a print, “It was a bigger wow. I never did anything like that before. Photographs I had done, but I never considered them beautiful photographs.” The experience was revelatory.
Now, Alan visits Poland multiple times a year to explore centuries-old cemeteries across the country. Some were razed by the Nazis during WWII, with few or no stones remaining; in others, the elements have worn down the headstones – “matzevahs” in Hebrew – over time, with no one to tend to them after the war, and subsequent waves of antisemitism caused most of the Jewish population to flee Poland during the 20th century. Alan carefully documents what remains, sometimes spending hours in just one graveyard.
“All of these places have their own stories,” he says. The photographs are “a visceral response to what I’m seeing.” Since switching to digital in 2013, Alan estimates that he has taken well over 300,000 photographs in Poland’s cemeteries alone.
Alan’s Silence and Stones will be up at the Dodge House Gallery from April 22 until May 9, with an opening reception on April 28 from 2-4pm. Projects and Selections runs at Candita Clayton Gallery from April 18 to May 25.