Brown to co-sponsor WaterFire Providence, host Family Weekend visitors for Oct. 16 lighting

As Saturday evening’s lighting approaches, Brown graduate and WaterFire founder Barnaby Evans shared insights on Brown’s Open Curriculum, and WaterFire’s powerful economic and cultural impact in Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – As Brown University welcomes parents and family members of current students from across the globe to Providence for its annual Family Weekend, the University will co-sponsor a full lighting of WaterFire Providence on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Launched in the mid-1990s by Brown Class of 1975 graduate Barnaby Evans, the award-winning WaterFire has been acclaimed by Rhode Island residents and international visitors alike as a powerful work of art and a moving symbol of Providence’s renaissance. During each lighting, more than 80 sparkling bonfires, the fragrant scent of wood smoke, the flickering firelight on the city’s arched bridges, the silhouettes of the fire-tenders passing by the flames, the torch-lit vessels traveling down the river, and the enchanting music from around the world engage the senses and emotions of those who stroll Providence’s nearby streets and sidewalks.

Among the events at Saturday’s lighting will be performances by Brown-affiliated groups like Gendo Taiko, a Japanese drumming group, and a Brown Parent and Family hospitality tent on Market Square (North Main and College Street) for Family Weekend visitors. The lighting will begin approximately 20 minutes past sunset (6:02 p.m.) and the fires will remain lit until 11 p.m.

University President Christina H. Paxson said that Brown’s co-sponsorship of the WaterFire lighting is an investment not just in this weekend’s event, but also in the transformative long-term economic and cultural impact that the one-of-a-kind experience has made and continues to make in Providence and Rhode Island.

“This exceptional display of public art has brought new life to the capital, new economic activity to once-quiet streets, and new opportunities for residents and visitors alike to take pride in Providence,” Paxson said. “At Brown, we are excited to build on previous partnerships with WaterFire to co-sponsor this lighting – we know it will capture the imaginations of local community members and visitors to Family Weekend traveling to Rhode Island from across the globe.”

As the Brown community, the City of Providence and visitors to Family Weekend look forward to WaterFire, Barnaby Evans – its founder, designer and developer – shared his insights on his experience with Brown’s innovative Open Curriculum, WaterFire’s role in transforming Providence over two and a half decades, and how the organization continues to thrive today, including in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: WaterFire is a household name in Rhode Island, but you must run into people in your travels who have never experienced it – how do you describe WaterFire to someone who has not yet attended?

Art always best speaks for itself, so I try to avoid describing it. People deserve the opportunity to encounter WaterFire on their own, without imposed expectations. To enter into a discussion is to force a set of presumptions related to how one looks at art, so I usually turn the question around: “You’ve heard a little bit about it. What do you imagine it is?”

It’s fascinating to hear what they say. We wanted something that would respond to people of all ages and backgrounds, and I’ve heard so many stories from people about what it means to them, including from children. We’ve been doing WaterFire for 25 years now, so we have kids who just assume it’s part of the “ancient” history of the city – that it’s something Roger Williams started. At its core, WaterFire is designed to work simultaneously on multiple levels: It’s an installation sculpture work, a civic intervention, a public ritual and a piece of social engineering. We also make cultural references that people can find if they’re interested in pursuing those, but a lot of people simply want to enjoy it.

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