95 Phenix Avenue

Al Billings

the house

This photo essay is constructed around a collection of images I shot of 95 Phenix Avenue, in Phenix, Rhode island, in 1989, deploying a Minolta SRT 101 35 MM single lens reflex camera and a box-full of Kodak 400 ASA black and white safety film, called that because the film base yields a very tough and permanent negative.

the house

I had gone back to Rhode Island from Southern California after spending part of the Fall in 1989 in an arts residency in the hills of Western Massachusetts, and several weeks in Western Rhode island to visit my adoptive family, and, if possible, to locate my birth mother.

the house

Phenix, Rhode island is a collapsed mill town on the Blackstone River Valley, now taken over by the wealthy, who render textile mills into condos and shopping centers. Various boosters trumpet its historic praises, but I remember spending a summer in 1966 working for my uncle at the Pawtuxet Valley Dye Company, in Phenix, and viewing it as a nearly hopeless dead-end for a young man who had artistic visions dancing in his head. It took more real guts than I possessed to hang in for the long haul.

the house

For the puzzled reader, the Blackstone River valley is a complex of rivers and canals constructed in 1828, meant to connect Central Massachusetts to the Atlantic through Providence, Rhode Island. The textile industry fled to Asia long ago, and only a few of the mills still operate. Presently, we’ll be coming back to the rivers.

the house

The Phenix Avenue images represent my first attempt at assembling a cohesive collection of images with a manual 35 MM camera. Heading east, I shot film in San Bernardino, California, El Paso, Texas, Cummington, Massachusetts, and Shannock, Rhode Island. I had the all the film processed, put the negatives in a drawer, and left them hidden away for twenty two years, until a friend recently scanned and printed them for me.

the house

In 1928, my adoptive father built 95 Phenix Avenue for my uncle, Larry Faella. He excavated the foundation, constructed the stone-lined cellar, worked his way up to the second story and finished it off by lining the carved-out earthen walls with native stone. He was said to be one of the few men in Rhode Island with the skills to  stack them so beautifully.

the house

But then, he could build 150-foot fishing vessels and create nearly anything he imagined, so I don’t believe he was much challenged by the project. I’ve often wondered if that house felt as good to him as it did to me.

the house

If the house in which you were raised is still standing, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen it, you can still feel it in the pit of your stomach, and the spirits that now inhabit it will have become both close friends and occasional meddlesome spooks.

the house

I haven’t seen the house in twenty-two years, but when I last did, in 1989, I remembered every detail: the ship-lapped boards long ago weather-proofed, the raw, earthy gouges that support the sod banks, and the garage roof, with it’s earthen extension along the freestanding outer wall, heaving and sighing into the weight of the hillside, where my cousin and Gerald and I once tried jumping off of the garage roof with umbrellas, just to see if we could parachute to safety.

the house

But more than any other feature, I remember its intoxicating odor, rich, slightly damp, womb-like in it’s earthy embrace, the center of something I still fail to understand, yet so powerful that in 1969, when I was furious, and struggling to excavate the roots of my adoption, I rode a Greyhound bus three thousand miles from California to Rhode Island, where my family generously allowed me to take refuge in that house while I battled various demons.  It took me twenty more years to find what I was looking for.

the house

July 22, 2011 5:01 pm

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