Inside Providence’s Nicholson File Art Studios

Artists, designers, makers, and small business owners find affordable spaces in a repurposed boiler room in the Valley neighborhood

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Suppose you’re graduating from RISD. You’ve studied hard. You have mastered your art; now it’s time to go professional. You could zip off to New York, but it’s expensive, and you don’t know anyone there. You could create new works in your apartment, but it’s cramped, and your roommate hates the way you leave your stuff lying around.

Then you hear about this magical place: the Nicholson File Art Studios, a former factory located in the Valley district. You’re astonished. You’ve visited the nearby Steel Yard. You’ve frequented the WaterFire Arts Center. You shop at the Farm Fresh RI hub every weekend. And now there’s this huge industrial space, packed with studios and fellow working artists, just around the corner from these hotspots? Is such a dream even possible?

“What this is,” says Asher Schofield, co-owner of the gift shop Frog & Toad, “is a space for a kid right out of college with mountains of student debt. They can still afford to rent a spot here.”

The Nicholson File building is a big brick box with two stories and 9,000 square feet of floor space. The roof is topped with a dormant smokestack, which is how you know you’re in the right place. A century ago, the factory pumped out 120,000 metal files per day, making the Nicholsons one of the wealthiest families in Providence. The factory closed in the late 1950s, but like many old mills, the building was resuscitated as a space for artists and craftspeople. Nicholson File was one of several projects spearheaded by art supporters Rachel Rafaelian and Erik Bright; the complex opened its doors in 2009.

On a recent weekday, Schofield gave us a tour of the facility. Open studios were once a common event at Nicholson File, and now that COVID cases have dropped, the public will again be invited to visit artists’ workspaces. Each floor is partitioned into rooms, and each room is filled to the brim with supplies. One studio is for woodworking, another for ceramics, another for metalwork. Films are shot and canvases are painted. At the moment, about 25 artists are headquartered here. The dusty air hums with overlapping creativity.

“The opportunity to collaborate with other artists, learn from them, take cues from them, I think there’s a lot to be said for being in a community like that,” says Schofield.

For Schofield, the studios were a place to reinvigorate his business. Five years ago, Frog & Toad was already a popular East Side destination, but he wanted the store to develop its own line of T-shirts and greeting cards. With a sizable workspace, Schofield was able to buy printing machines and organize art materials. His creative team could develop new products off-site, then easily transport them to the store.

“My business increased dramatically upon getting this studio space, and being able to add a few more irons to the fire in terms of the scope of what we do,” he says. “I’m super grateful for that opportunity.”

Schofield feels that post-industrial studios were once a vital part of Providence’s cultural scene. Nicholson File doesn’t stand too far from Fort Thunder, the warehouse that was a lynchpin of local underground music and performance art in the late 1990s. As more old factories are claimed by developers for high-end lofts, thriving spaces like Nicholson File become ever more vital.

“You just want the arts and culture scene to be as vibrant as possible,” says Schofield. “Because it’s better for everybody.”

Open studio events will take place in October. 

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