Home » The Lively Experiment: Providence, Rhode Island

The Lively Experiment: Providence, Rhode Island

by Jeff Heilman

Great things are available day and night in this walkable, safe, and accessible city. Providence’s diverse neighborhoods invite, and reward, exploration at every turn.

This was no ordinary interview. Surrounded by his “intergalactic mutant puppet creatures,” my afternoon with BIG NAZO founder and artistic director Erminio Pinque at his street-level workshop and community space in downtown Providence was like happyhour at the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars.

“This one’s inspired by Cthulhu,” said Pinque, referring to Providence-born horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic entity as he put a green tentacled squid-like creature mask on my head. While raptly following Pinque’s animated discourse on creating common understanding and enlightenment from confusion and chaos, I also donned mutant bird, pig, and robot heads. Joined by walk-ins from the street who put on other fantastical masks and body parts, it became a true extra-dimensional party.

“Growing up in an Italian immigrant family meant fitting in and not making waves,” said the native New Yorker.“ Immersion in comic books, sketching and drawing revealed other possibilities. Halloween was my license to suit up and go wild—every day of the year. I started gluing shapes together and then breaking them down. Art showed me the bigger world out there.”

After graduating from Providence’s preeminent Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the early 80s, Pinque took his nascent street act around Europe. In Italy, locals christened his character’s pronounced proboscis “Big Nazo,” or “big nose.”

Returning to Providence, he collaboratively expanded the concept with improvisational comedy and rock and funk music. Since 1987, his band of aliens, monsters, and animal hybrids has appeared at festivals around the globe. They are also a roving part of the Providence scene.

Big Nazo Founder Erminio Pinque in Providence, RI

Big Nazo Founder and Director Erminio Pinque
Photo: Snehal Jose Hernandez

“We are a team of purposeful misfits and disruptors,” said Pinque, who teaches creative collaboration, creature-making included, at RISD and iworkshops fon entrepreneurs and other professionals. “From our low-tech creature design to deliberately screwing up the routine, we create dysfunctional gaps for the audience to fill in. When the power fails, everybody shares batteries, right? Our goal is to take people from confusion and discomfort to changing their world view.”

BIG NAZO is one of many visible examples of the bandwidth and breathing space for free expression and new ideas, no matter how eccentric, offered by Rhode Island’s capital.

This defining quality dates to renegade preacher Roger Williams’ founding of the Providence Plantations in 1636 as “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” Then, that meant a haven for individual liberty apart from the authority of religion and government. Williams also embraced the inclusion of America’s native cultures. Today, his “lively experiment” is ingrained in the city’s uniquely democratic and welcoming ways.

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