Events

WaterFire, Beyond the Lighting: A conversation with Peter Mello

Clear Currents Participants Circle the Basin (Photograph by John Nickerson)

When I moved to PVD my aunt asked, “Have you gone to WaterFire?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and the pairing of words seemed incongruous. So she and my uncle drove down from MA and took me. 

The sky threatened rain all day. But it held off until the sky turned black and a boat named Prometheus came down the river with a torch of fire. A brazier was lit. The sky opened up. It poured. And it was perfect.

All along the river people ran for cover and did so while laughing and smiling. We shared umbrellas and huddled together watching the bonfires roar and the firelight flicker atop the water rippling with raindrops. The air smelled of cedar and pine, and drums beat like a unified pulse.

WaterFire is now in its 28th season. This year there are seven full and six partial confirmed lightings. Lightings attract an international audience and are a significant driver of the local economy. A 2012 economic impact report found WaterFire activity drew approximately one million people to Providence and created $114 million of economic impact, which in turn generated over nine million dollars of tax revenue and supported 1,294 jobs in the community. That study was conducted 10 years ago, and WaterFire, like PVD, has grown since.

To learn more about WaterFire’s growth, I spoke with Peter Mello, managing director and co-CEO (with founder Barnaby Evans) of WaterFire Providence and the WaterFire Arts Center.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It seems like despite the 19-month break during the beginning of the pandemic, WaterFire managed not only to survive but thrive.

That’s true. The WaterFire Arts Center was part of our strategic plan to diversify from just being the event downtown. It’s an incredible exhibition space that’s unlike anything in the region, except maybe Mass MoCA. We just closed the exhibition Planet Earth, the Environment and Our Future (link to storyxxx) , which featured a 23-foot-diameter sculpture of the Earth by British artist Luke Jerram. It was a spectacular show. 

We also have about a 22,000 square-foot gallery, which is currently displaying T-shirts from 1936 all the way to present day. One of the artists is Joe Perez, who designs for Kanye and other really high-profile performers. 

Last year we created WaterFire Accelerate to provide a year of professional development to artists under 30. They’re given a stipend and attend meetings that help them with things they don’t learn in art school. We had one where we introduced the artists to a CPA who talked about bookkeeping and taxes. We had a session with a major collector, probably the most important art philanthropist in RI for the last fifty years. They’ve had the ability to spend time with Jordan Seaberry, who’s an extraordinary young artist. We have a session coming up on NFTs. 

That’s the type of programming we’re doing at WaterFire that people don’t really know about. Our brand is the event downtown, but the WaterFire Arts Center is a spectacular exhibition space and we’re super excited about these programs.

What other organizations or art forms might people encounter at a WaterFire lighting?

We collaborate and partner with all kinds of cultural institutions and performing arts organizations. We use the hashtag #ArtForImpact, because that’s what WaterFire really is, we’re creating art for impact, both cultural impact and economic impact. 

Years ago we partnered with Dr. Lynn Taylor, who received a grant to try and eradicate Hepatitis C from the state of RI. We approached her and said, “We have the ability to connect you to a greater audience than you might otherwise have the ability to.”

It’s a silent epidemic, a lot of people don’t even know they have it. We partnered with her and Festival Ballet and did testing at WaterFire. Festival Ballet used music that would appeal to the boomer generation, because they’re the demographic most susceptible, and designed a whole bunch of dances set to Beatles music. Anyone who tested positive received a call from Dr. Taylor the following Monday letting them know they tested positive and most importantly letting them know it was curable and how to get on the path to recovery. 

WaterFire Accelerate Artists 2021 (Photograph by Peter Mello)

We’re always providing organizations with a platform to an audience that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, including the RI Philharmonic. When we had the philharmonic, we broadcast their music throughout WaterFire, and that was the largest audience they’d come across. This is an instance where people who might not buy a ticket to see the philharmonic got access to the experience for free. 

That’s one of my favorite parts of WaterFire. Public art is where it’s at.

You have to realize none of the buildings existed downtown when WaterFire started. The mall wasn’t there, the IGT building wasn’t there, Blue Cross Blue Shield wasn’t there, the Waterplace Towers weren’t there. The only building that was in the process of being built was the Citizens building, but otherwise all those big buildings didn’t exist. 

Barnaby often tells the story of when the mall was being built he ran into a construction worker, and when Barnaby introduced himself as the creator, the guy said, “Oh wow, last weekend we came to WaterFire and brought the whole family. We always take two cars when we travel as a family because you never know what’s going to happen when we go out together, we get into a fight and next thing you know someone’s going home. But we had the greatest time. WaterFire’s amazing.” And then he said, “You know, I don’t want to insult you or anything, but that WaterFire thing — it’s kind of like art.” In this instance, somebody went to experience something, never thinking they were experiencing art.

I love that. People say they’re not into art or don’t see themselves as artists, and it’s like “No, you love art! Look at your fashion, look how you’re styling your hair. You’re listening to music. You’re surrounded by art!”

You’re absolutely surrounded by art. Everything you touch or come into contact with has had the fingerprints of an artist. There’s nothing that isn’t touched by art. Even your cereal box, a graphic designer designed the cover, a product designer designed the box. When kids think about careers they don’t really think about art like that, but lots of kids like art, right? It’s important for them to understand they can make a career being creative.

To learn more about WaterFire’s diverse offerings, including how to apply to WaterFire Accelerate, visit waterfire.org.

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