Last Updated on January 21, 2022 by Jim Ferri
The unique experience of Waterfire in Providence, RI…
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Tony Tedeschi
Fires ablaze on the rivers of a major American city – a catastrophic ecological disaster? Nope. “Waterfire, Providence, Rhode Island“. Alternate Saturdays, mid-May to late November.
Each year, more than 80 wood-stacked braziers are set ablaze along the Providence, Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, which help define some of the city’s downtown districts.
The six-month-long riverfront celebration turns a significant part of the central city into a festival, replete with food, drink, entertainment and a party atmosphere that engenders a sense of community among the throngs of people who drift along the riverfronts, drawn to the fires and their musical accompaniment.
A Hypnotic Experience at Waterfire
Spectators stand or sit with legs dangling along the walls lining the rivers, watching near hypnotically, as the fires cast their glow upon the facades of office towers, turning them into yellow-to-orange accents against the blue-black night, while gondolas and other small boats ply the rivers, taking passengers along the fire-snaked routes.
As the descendant of pyrotechnics, who had emigrated from central Italy just prior to World War I, I found myself almost spellbound by Waterfire as a kind of answer to the ephemeral nature of my ancestors’ bombs bursting in air, then dissipating into the blackness. The spectacle gave me both something to hold onto, from sunset to midnight, as either the center of my attention or, alternatively, an ongoing performance that drew me to it as I proceeded along my passeggiatta.
Waterfire Is Awash in Music
The entire Waterfire course is awash in musical accompaniment, which adds to the hypnotic effect of the experience. Genres are juxtaposed: the jazz of Chet Baker, a French torch song by Yves Montand, opera by Bellini, the guitar work of Ry Cooder, as well as recorded natural sounds and music related to the ritual, religious and symbolic sources of the fiery sculpture.
The organizers vary the soundtrack with each performance and include works by artists from throughout the world, deliberately juxtaposing “the emotional character of the music . . . to the minimalism of the sculpture—just as fire is paired with water.”
Waterfire is the brainchild of Barnaby Evans, a multimedia artist and graduate of Brown University, in the heart of Providence. A smaller version began in 1994 as “First Fire,” then grew into its present incarnation in 1997, attracting millions of visitors over the years. Despite having studied sciences at Brown, Evans eventually became one of those artists, who illuminate the soul of a place. His handiwork has drawn the attention of other cities around the country and the world.
The Epicenter of Design
While Waterfire is clearly the center of attention on the evenings of its captivating half-year tenure, what else to do during a long weekend in the city?
The Rhode Island School of Design enjoys a major presence just east of the Providence River in the heart of the city. Funding for the founding of RISD was a bit quirky. With $1,675 left over from fund-raising for Rhode Island’s participation in 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Women’s Centennial Commission was faced with the choice of financing the school or a water fountain in Roger Williams Park. They chose the school.
Rhode Island had emerged from the Civil War as the most industrialized state in the Union. Businesses in the state were cranking out everything from jewelry to machine tools, textiles to steam engines. Civic leaders were convinced that to remain competitive, there was need for industrial art and design education, as well as an appreciation for fine arts.
Museum of Art
The Museum of Art that emerged as an adjunct to the School of Design is a must-see attraction, even if you’re in town for Waterfire and are short on time. That it has its share of works by impressionists, expressionists, cubists, surrealists, fauvists and pointillists is reason enough to go, but the distinction that sets this museum apart is its exhibits depicting a breadth of works in everything from graphic design to sculpture, video to mixed media, as well as designs that all-but-defy categorization.
There are thought-provoking exhibits on graphic arts that dazzle and push the envelope in print, photography, drawing and painting, video and Internet, including book covers, typefaces, work clothes, high fashion, clothing accessories, furniture, business-related sculpture, wall coverings, even a first-aid kit and a new take on a lumberman’s axe. The exhibits are so unique to this distinctly unique museum, it almost makes you forget the Picassos, Cezannes, Renoirs, Van Goghs . . . almost.
Ellie’s Baked Stuffed Shrimp
My wife, Candy, had been to Hemenway’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar on South Main Street during a business trip and had been insisting we go ever since we’d hit town. Based on her report of her previous visit, it wasn’t a tough sell.
Our waitress introduced herself as, “Ellie, your server for this evening.”
I responded by introducing Candy, and myself. It elicited a warm smile. She let us know the specials, then took our drink order, a bottle of Martin Codax Albariño, one of our favorite Spanish whites.
Candy was leaning linguine with shrimp; I became fixated on the paella. I hadn’t had it since a trip to Madrid and was salivating over the mere thought of it. Despite the certainty about the paella, an item in the adjacent column intrigued me: “Ellie’s Baked Stuffed Shrimp.” When she returned, I had to ask.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s my recipe. We had a little competition at the restaurant and my recipe was selected.”
I couldn’t free myself from the paella, but asked if I could somehow have some of the stuffed shrimp as an appetizer. She said she’d ask the chef. He agreed and fixed me two of them. Heavenly. And, since Candy is allergic to onions included in the linguine sauce, the chef prepared a special order of the entree without them.
The best restaurants handle special requests like those and are happy to do it. And, after having dined on the above, I can say with certainty, I’d never had a better seafood experience than Hemenway’s . . . and you should definitely try the baked stuffed shrimp during Waterfire or any time of year.
Federal Hill Restaurant Row During Waterfire
The fact that Providence is habitually named to best restaurant and foodie lists opens up a host of possibilities. The problem being how do you choose from an embarrassment of riches, when you only have a couple of nights during Waterfire or on a long weekend? Lunch anyone?
Along Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill, there are blocks and blocks of restaurants, the preponderance being Italian, many with outdoor dining. Costantino’s Venda Bar & Ristorante near the intersection with De Pasquale Avenue opens onto a plaza replete with a fountain. Costantino’s shares the space with other restaurants, all having plenty of outdoor seating. So, a pizza and a bottle of Peroni under an umbrella on a plaza glittering in the sunshine, well, what could be better?
The fact that the menu went on forever, with all-but-irresistible appetizers and entrees, was resulting in second-guessing about having made dinner reservations elsewhere, but we resisted and had a satisfying pizza as planned. There was no second-guessing about the $1,000 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild on the wine list (I’m not sure it would pair well with pizza), or an espresso with a $350 bottle of Chateau D’Yquem to go along with it.
. . . The deliciously prepared cod dinner at Centro Restaurant and Lounge in the Omni Hotel on Exchange Street . . . the old-fashion meatloaf and mashed potatoes at Murphy’s Deli & Bar on Fountain Street . . . the grilled chicken, mozzarella and red pepper sandwich at the Paragon (now closed, unfortunately), just off the Brown University campus . . . OK! . . . O. . .K. Providence is worth the trip for the food experience alone during Waterfire or not.
If you go:
Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau
10 Memorial Boulevard
Providence, Rhode Island 02903
Tel: (401) 456-0200
Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design
20 North Main St (you can also enter at 224 Benefit Street)
Providence, RI 02903
Tel: (401) 454-6500