Art! Music! Papermaking! Pawtucket Arts Fest takes center stage

For anyone who is still reeling from Ari Aster’s new festival film Midsommar, a terrifying triptych of bacchanalia, pagan ritual and cult-enforced suicide, the term “festival” can conjure up a host of images — and some of them are a bit unsettling. Thankfully, most festivals are of a more innocent variety than those of Aster’s film.

Such is the case for the esteemed Pawtucket Arts Festival, which will run from September 6 through 15. Summer may be the season for music festivals, but Lollapalooza has nothing on this annual festival celebrating Pawtucket’s thriving arts scene. What is especially impressive about the event is its scope — and utter commitment to showcasing the rich cultural history that the city has to offer. 

While some festivals carve out a niche, The Pawtucket Arts Festival runs the gamut of artistic and cultural pursuits. Why? Executive director Anthony Ambrosino says, “Everyone deserves a seat a the table of expression.” According to him, the event is meant to be an all-encompassing “arts festival. Not a fine arts festival, not a performing arts festival, but we try and encompass as many forms of art as we can.” This attitude puts the focus on the diversity of artistic expression and community in Pawtucket.

Attendees can expect a rich array of cultural events, from the Dragon Boat Celebration to workshops on papermaking made from locally foraged plant fiber. But part of what is most impressive is how the festival has evolved since its inception. Attendees will now be treated to a “new formula” this year: a condensed festival, occurring on consecutive days rather than spread out over weeks at a time. Why the change? Anyone who has ever worked for a festival knows that a willingness to experiment and grow is an integral aspect of orchestrating a successful festival for the long term. Ambrosino has managed to create a sustainable festival in part because of his belief in the festival’s adaptability.

He says, “Like a living organism the festival has adapted to a variety of changes, changes in public interest, arts trends and management styles, but what I think is most important are the things that haven’t changed, like the passion of the artists who come out every year and present events to their city. The efforts of our volunteers who keep the festival functioning year after year and the support of the city and mayor who see the value of not only a representative arts festival but an arts culture here in Pawtucket.” Plus, a single week will help attendees organize their time around the event—ensuring that they can attend can’t-be-missed happenings.

When I asked Ambrosino if the festival had a unifying theme, he said, “culture and education.” Much of his work as director involves community outreach, and events such as the Taiwan Day Festival as a testament to that. He sees his work at the festival as an “opportunity to explore that culture and its history, and the film festival has worked very hard to bring thought-provoking and informative films.”

The Pawtucket Arts Festival presents itself as a smorgasbord of events for the whole family, filled with food, art and community spirit. Like a Russian stacking doll of sorts, there are festivals working within the main festival. Take the Slater Park Festival, for example. It’s a free event at Slater Memorial Park with presentations by the Pawtucket Film Festival and the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, plus artisanal food in plein air markets and, of course, face painting.

Lovers of visual art can delight in reception for the talented creators at Fountain Street Artists, many of whom are — quite fittingly — exhibiting work about urban landscapes in New England at the moment. And don’t forget about a hyper-local-focused photography exhibition called “Not Just Mill Towns; Urban Photography of Robert Easton,” which centers on community pride, character and embodied history in Pawtucket and Central Falls, where “much of that character remains, sometimes in hidden or overlooked corners and often front and center of the street scene,” according to the exhibition guide. The festival will also feature an exciting multimedia juried exhibit called “Textures,” focusing on — you guessed it! — how texture is expressed across form. 

One particularly hallmark event, however, is the Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Racing & Taiwan Day Festival, a celebration — and competition — wherein competing teams race in Taiwanese-style dragon boats and illustrate their honing of the craft of flag-catching. Both club and amateur teams can sign up! But the family fun doesn’t stop there. Attendees should also be sure to stop by the craft tables, or even indulge in the annual dumpling eating contest.

In the end, Ambrosino says, “One of the most exciting aspects of this job is giving a platform and a voice to Pawtucket artists and Pawtucket communities.”

The Pawtucket Arts Fest takes place in various locations from Sep 6 – 15. For more information, pawtucketartsfestival.org

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