On certain Saturday nights from May through October, something brilliant happens to the urban landscape of downtown Providence. The waterway that borders College Hill on one side and the city’s civic and commercial hub on the other is transformed into a vibrant sculpture that draws thousands into a communal ritual.
By day, Providence’s 11 acres of riverfront parks and 1.5 miles of cobblestone riverwalks are used by residents and visitors making their way across the city. At sunset on WaterFire nights, black-clad “firetenders” cruise silently down the river in boats, stoking the hundred steel braziers installed in the river with aromatic wood. As pulsing music plays and the bonfires cast their reflections in the dark water, the heart of the city is given over to an experience that WaterFire’s million-plus annual visitors are often at a loss to describe.
“WaterFire makes people slow down,” says event volunteer Ellen Edwartoski. “They may even have to wait for things to happen. It’s not being in a line for a ride on a Ferris wheel, it’s waiting for an ‘Ahhh’ moment. A surprise.”
Visitors to WaterFire discover that a truly collective experience can be had in the middle of a diverse, 21st-century city. Artist and WaterFire creator Barnaby Evans wanted the installation to share qualities of the passeggiata, a Southern European evening stroll similar to an informal street pageant. While the event has been carefully developed and involves complex orchestration, Evans wanted visitors to have freedom in the way they enter the experience: Visitors can settle in at the four-acre Waterplace Park, a tidal basin and natural amphitheater located near the Rhode Island State House; take a position on one of the river’s Venetian-style stone bridges; watch the fires at water-level from a gondola; or simply move along the river and into downtown.
The sculpture is a statement about human life, says Evans. He notes that fire and water function in tension with each other. Water can signify cleanliness, fertility, and abundance, but also the underworld, dreams, and insubstantiality. Likewise, fire can represent illumination and creativity, as well as destruction. They are “symbols of the forces we need to keep in balance to push the city forward,” Evans says, and the hundreds of volunteers who keep the installation ablaze symbolize the many small efforts essential to energizing the city.
Upon witnessing the installation, Evan says, “some people have tears in their eyes, and there are others for whom it’s totally a carnival. It’s entirely what the audience brings to it.”
Deemed Providence’s signature public art event and the “crown jewel in the Providence renaissance” by architect Friedrich St. Florian, WaterFire began as “First Fire,” Evans’ installation for a New Year’s Eve event in 1994. In 1996, he recreated the installation for the International Sculpture Conference. Although he had conceived of the piece as a “one-off”, Providence community members and civic leaders recognized the fires as an important way to bring activity to downtown Providence and urged him to continue the project. With the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the City, WaterFire became a nonprofit organization.
The organization allowed Evans to bring visitors to the beautiful but underused Waterplace Park and to push against the “false front of egalitarianism that pervades the art world,” spurred on by Evans’ witnessing an attendant at the New York City gallery that represented him make visitors feel unwelcome during an exhibition of street photography.
“To see the disconnect between the spirit of the work and the attitude of the guy at the desk” drove Evans to challenge the notion that rarity, scarcity, and connoisseurship must be at the center of an art experience.
Twelve years later, WaterFire is one of the most visible of Providence’s many cultural events, and is attended by people from all parts of the city and the world. Evans collaborates with many organizations and groups, and curates live performances that represent the cultural influences alive in Providence — from Hmong to salsa — all while keeping WaterFire free thanks to sponsorships, donations, support from the state legislature and a public/private collaboration with the City of Providence.
The season kicks off on Saturday, May 23rd, and continues through October 10. More information on WaterFire, as well as ways to volunteer and make donations, is available at www.waterfire.org.