Over the years, Bert Crenca has made lots of art—music and performances, sculptures and wild paintings of people and things warped and stretched and mutated, like visions out of strange dreams. But those following his social media on Feb. 17, 2020, saw him announce a new direction with a post showing a realist painting of plastic garbage cans lined up in a city backyard. He captioned it: “First of a new series ‘Divine providence, north end.’”

Crenca had retired from being a full-time staff member at AS220 in 2016, but he had continued an active relationship as an advisor to the uncensored, unjuried community art center, the premiere organization of art-makers in Providence, which he’d co-founded in 1985. As its longtime artistic director, Crenca had come to embody AS220, it’s living symbol, a brawny artist with his signature swagger, bald dome and flowing goatee, walking down the city’s streets, expanding creative opportunities.

Over the years, to justify to himself how much time he was putting into AS220, Crenca says, “I had to look at it as this large work of art,” a wide-ranging creative project, rooted in his values, that fueled thousands of artists over the years, as well as himself. But like any amazing giant project, it consumed oodles of time and energy that he could have spent in his own studio, on his own art.

Now around the start of 2020, he was actually, really moving on from AS220. At his home in Providence’s North End—a former Italian America Club turned into a 4,000-square-foot residence, woodshop, work-out space, art studio, music rehearsal space, and gallery for Crenca and his wife Susan Clausen—he was fully devoting himself to his own art-making. “I’m in my studio every day,” Crenca told me the other day. “…Now I wake up thinking about painting, I wake up thinking about music. I feel so blessed.”

Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #1.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #1.

Crenca shared the next painting in the “Divine Providence” series on social media on March 4, 2020—a view of a driveway between buildings. The third depicted rooftops that seemed stacked one atop the other. The next: a tight view through yards and between buildings, chain link fences and lined up trash cans, one of those quintessential city views of Providence where things are glimpsed framed between the houses and buildings.

Crenca saw himself as returning to a series of paintings he’d made of Providence’s Federal Hill and sold back around 1983, but had kept no visual record of.

Then the covid lockdowns began. “Then it all made even more sense—of being out in and thinking about neighborhoods and where you are. The whole series is intended to be a pedestrian perspective, and the geometry, the architecture, and the vernacular. And the commonplace,” Crenca says. “…The paintings are about putting the viewer in that place.”

Umberto Crenca in his studio, 2020.
Umberto Crenca in his studio, 2020.

Umberto Crenca was born in Providence—baptized, he notes, at Holy Ghost Church on Federal Hill. When he was 2, his family moved to Lymansville in North Providence, about four and a half miles northwest of where AS220 now is, but he returned to Providence regularly to visit extended family, relatives who’d moved to the city from Italy. At age 19, Crenca rented a home in Providence, then moved back to Lymansville upon his first marriage, before returning to Providence again, where he’s now lived for nearly 50 years. In other words, he’s always lived in or near the city, he identifies deeply with it, he’s devoted his life to it. Crenca says, “AS220 was a 30-year, almost 40-year love affair with the city. This is me doing the same, but coming out of my studio.”

As Crenca celebrated his 73 birthday on Nov. 17, 2023, he’d painted 265 “Divine Providence” canvases. (He exhibited 226 of them at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center from Oct. 12 to Nov. 12.) “I would be extraordinarily depressed if I wasn’t being productive in this way,” Crenca says. “…I can’t watch life go by. I have to participate, and I have to participate in a creative way.”

Crenca has sold dozens of the paintings, and the series has led to painting commissions—of homes or a certain park bench or other places special to people. “I didn’t have no pension plan or nothing from AS220,” Crenca says. “…My income is social security, which ain’t much because I never made much. Making some money from my art has been a godsend.”

Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," commission, 2021.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” commission, 2021.

Crenca roams Providence on foot, photographing scenes that might become paintings. (“I’m a terrible photographer,” he notes.) “I take more photographs that I’m likely to paint. I come back and pick and choose.” He projects the photos onto canvases—either 11×14, 16×20 or 30×36 inches, vertical, intentionally like a social media post—“and do a kind of minimal line drawing and then I paint into it.”

“It’s a matter of appreciating and focusing,” Crenca says. “…When you walk you see textures. Providence has a lot of houses with a house in the back of the same lot. Things that I think are unique to this city.” He paints parking lots, a row of mannequins outside a boutique, power lines, trash cans, trees, old brick factories, Victorian houses, gas stations, laundromats, bridges, business signs, everything pressed up close together.

The paintings often feel like you’re there alone, but Crenca tells me, “There’s quite a few that have people.” Buildings burned by fire and boarded up. “You wonder what happened. Did anybody get hurt?” The lives lived in these buildings, immigrants who passed through. “Transitions. Neighborhoods going down and coming back.” A beat-up chair in a corner. An overgrown area. “The detritus.” Construction workers at night. “The difference between home-ownership and rentals. They all have a vibe. They all tell a story.” Graffitied signs and bridge supports and buildings. “I know all these neighborhoods. I’ve lived in all of them. I know the signage, the texture. … A lot of times, it’s found poetry, three or four signs piled up.”

The acrylic paintings are about a love for Providence—“Divine Providence”—his holy place in all its beautiful grit and messiness. “We take our surroundings for granted,” Crenca tells me. “We don’t necessarily appreciate what we see.”


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Umberto Crenca at reception for "Divine Providence" at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
Umberto Crenca at reception for “Divine Providence” at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
"Divine Providence" at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
“Divine Providence” at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
Umberto Crenca, self-portrait, 2022.
Umberto Crenca, self-portrait, 2022.
"Divine Providence" at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
“Divine Providence” at Providence’s WaterFire Arts Center, October 2023.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #19.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #19.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #32.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #32.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #88.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #88.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #90.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #90.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #103.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #103.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #104.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #104.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #113.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #113.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #138.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #138.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #142.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #142.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #166.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #166.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #178.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #178.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #186.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #186.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #194.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #194.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #195.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #195.
Umberto Crenca, "Divine Providence," #213.
Umberto Crenca, “Divine Providence,” #213.
Categories: Art