Red Oak Saplings, steel
epoxy, pigment, wire, rope
Embracing Trees Become A Haunting Gateway Into Providence’s Wedding Cake House
By Greg Gook
In November 1999, Richard Goulis moved into a house at the corner of Broadway and Harris Avenue in Providence.
“I’d probably been in the house maybe a year or something. I had this backyard. I noticed this oak twig, maybe 6 inches tall, growing near the back wall,” the artist recalls. “Then I looked over and saw another one.”
“I’m going to move it over here and make an arch,” he thought.
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
He planted them six feet apart and as they grew, “I started tying them together” with velcro bands, then wire. “There would be more branches and they would lend themselves to putting them together in this gentle embrace.”
So began the haunting paired tree sculpture that Goulis installed as a gateway into the Wedding Cake House on Broadway in Providence in spring 2023.
Over a decade and a half, Goulis joined the two red oaks. “It became this ritual for me in the springtime,” a long improvisation between him and the trees. “It started making these odd forms, these odd shapes, and then when it grew tall enough, 10 to 15 years, I could walk underneath it.”
The embracing oaks had grown 14-feet-tall when Goulis was invited to exhibit at the Sprinkler Factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2017. “While they were still planted and growing, by now they were all bound together and they were in this arch, the leaves were still full,” Goulis recalls, “I epoxied the shit out of it.”
Goulis climbed ladders and scaffolding to brush epoxy onto the living oaks. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the top. It takes a couple days to cure. Once it was shelled over, I cut them down.”
“It became this glistening, dying sort of embrace of vegetation that was full well onto the way of being something different,” Goulis says. “It was this very emotional time because I had built up this relationship with these trees.”
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
He fashioned a steel base to support the first version of the sculpture when it was on display in Worcester for about two years.
“The title, ‘Condemned,’” Goulis says, “relates to what we’re doing to the earth. We’re wrecking stuff, but we’re also trying to fix stuff.”
Trust And Faith
Goulis was born in Middletown, Connecticut, just south of Hartford, in 1958, and grew up in the next town over, Middlefield. He joined the Air Force in October 1976 at age 17. “That’s when I sort of realized I’ve got to get my shit together,” Goulis recalls. “I want to be an artist.”
Upon leaving the Air Force in 1980, he studied at the University of Connecticut for a year (“I hated it there”), before getting into the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. He made national news as a student in 1983 when “I lived in a box for a week” on a grassy traffic island that used to be near the current RISD library.
After graduating the following year, Goulis made television commercials for a cable operator in North Oxford and Worcester, Massachusetts, and founded the Worcester Artist Group, a cooperative venue, in 1987. (It later became home
to the Sprinkler Factory.) In 1992, Goulis founded the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which offered drawing, movement and video production programs for kids, as well as a community garden.
Around 1995, Umberto Crenca, a co-founder of Providence art space AS220, enticed Goulis to return to Providence to run the gallery in their new Empire Street building.
Goulis has made assemblage sculptures from found dental molds, pear branches, glass. He’s painted glowing faces and swirling abstractions dotted with plastic pearls. He’s made prints from found letterpress graphics. He’s performed with the mask and puppetry troupe Big Nazo. And he became well known around Rhode Island for his performances, especially in the “Empire Review,” which he co-founded, at AS220.
For one memorable event, he encased his head and hands in blocks of hardened plaster. For a series of performances, he wore a capital dome mask and beat and stabbed what appeared to be a body wrapped in American flags. Some performances were skits, many were funny. The foundation of his performances were pieces in which, for example, he’d stuff a broken power tool and rope and whatnot into a canvas bag “and drag it on stage and make something or do something.” Goulis says, “It’s very Dada. It’s very practical. It’s improvisational prop theater.”
“When you do it, then you get this reaction from the crowd. It’s one of the best things you can experience. It’s instant gratification. It’s so rare,” Goulis said in a 2008 video for the NetWorks series documenting contemporary Rhode Island artists. (Goulis also produced and directed over 100 videos for the series in an archive that is maintained by WaterFire Providence) “It’s kind of like trust and faith in things and people around us.”
Decomposition And Regeneration
Beginning in 2019, Goulis moved “Condemned” to the corner of Broadway and Empire Street in Providence, across from the convention center, as part of The Avenue Concept’s public art program. At one point, Goulis added a boxlike metal frame of steel bars around it, evoking the cube he’d lived in for a week, and now symbolizing “the containment, the aspect of trying to control or showcase almost as if it were in a cage, a zoo exhibit.”
With the changes, Goulis renamed the artwork “Condemned II.”
Goulis then exhibited it at the sculpture park Studio 80 in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 2021. By the winter of 2022, though, “it was sort of lilting forward. If it hadn’t had that box around it, it certainly would have been flat on the ground. It had fungus growing on it. The epoxy had been breached in a number of places. The wood had dry rotted inside. It was essentially rotting away.”
Xander Marro and Pippi Zornoza, co-directors of Providence’s feminist arts organization, Dirt Palace Public Projects, had been curious about the artwork, and now had secured a Placemaking grant from RI Commerce Corp that allowed them to acquire public sculpture for the grounds of The Wedding Cake House.
So Goulis trucked “Condemned II” to his friend Jack Afonso’s Riverside Stone Company in Seekonk, Massachusetts, where he began to rebuild it.
“I was having serious second thoughts. It was a piece of junk. I wanted to burn it,” Goulis says. But Marro convinced him not to give up, telling him, “It’s about decay and decomposition and regeneration and rebuilding and all those things together. She whipped me into shape.”
“Condemned III,” as Goulis has renamed this “third and final '' version for the Wedding Cake House, is suspended from a steel ladder arbor that arches over a Tobey Street gateway into the property. “I literally re-tied and reformed the original growth of the trees with new branches and trees. It’s supported on the new trees now with the original lashed to it.”
When “Condemned III” was hoisted up into the arbor, Goulis
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
When “Condemned III” was hoisted up into the arbor, Goulis says Zornoza and Marro stepped back, looked at each other, and joked: ‘Well, finally we have something that says there’s no TV here.’”
As Goulis finished installing it in June 2023, a woman staying at the Wedding Cake House told him, “the trees are helping each other. They’re leaning on each other to help each other.”
The epoxy is “honey, syrupy thick stuff,” Goulis says. It makes the branches and leaves look moist, glistening, slimy. The wires holding it up can feel like spider webs. “I’ve added some dry pigment to give it a little green tinge in places. And I’ve added some little silver mylar glitter that catches the light.”
Goulis says, “There is a lamentation built into it, this feeling of loss that I felt when I first cut it, and this overall sense that we’re wrecking the world. There is this lament and this sense of destruction and recreation. What are we supposed to be doing?”
Richard Goulis is a multimedia and performance artist who has been a fixture on the local art scene since he first arrived in Providence in 1980 to study at RISD. He has been performing with Big Nazo puppet troupe since 1987, and is a founding member of Empire Revue. Between 2008 and 2016 Goulis produced and directed over 100 videos as part of NetWorks Rhode Island, a video art project that documented Rhode Island’s creative community.
Greg Cook has written for The Providence Phoenix, Juxtapoz magazine, Art & Antiques, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal, The Boston Globe and various other august journals of news. He founded The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Boston public radio station WBUR’s ARTery, and the blog Wonderland. For a while, he organized the New England Art Awards to promote art made in the region.
He’s drawn and written various zines and two long-ish books of comics, “Catch As Catch Can” and “Friends Is Friends.” His shortish comics have appeared in Publishers Weekly, Nickelodeon Magazine, The Believer, Tower Records’ in-store magazine, and various other sophisticated outlets.
Photo by Avery Shaw, 2023
With his sweetheart Kari Percival, he created the Wonderland Spectacle Co., and has organized the Pity Party with the Somerville Arts Council, Foo-Topia with AS220, Santas Against Global Warming, a Mermaid Promenade, and various other festivals, parades and shenanigans.
Many years ago, he created a photography program for children living in public housing in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He’s also taught art at a college. During covid he began making videos about local wildlife, including documentaries about “Wild Turkeys in the City” and “Pig Racing.” He has extensively photographed Bread and Puppet Theater, Italian-American fiestas, Caribbean carnivals, parades, festivals and activism. He’s working on a book documenting visionary art sites across this land.