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Rivers of Fire

Posted by Katie L. Carroll on September 13, 2009 in Art, Food, Nature, Travel |

WaterFire Providence is an interactive work of art that was designed by Barnaby Evans. It consists of 100 iron braziers that seem to defy physics as they float on three rivers in downtown Providence. The fires are lit at sunset and keep going until after midnight.

(Here’s Waterplace Park in the daytime. You can see the braziers are stacked with wood. On the left is the Courtyard Marriott and on the right is the Westin Hotel. Even more buildings have been put up since this picture was taken a few years ago. This area of Providence has gone through a real growth period over the last ten years.)

The WaterFire experience is really something that can’t be described, but I’ll give it a try. Imagine a communal ritual based around fire—very natural and primal—but in a modern, urban setting. The juxtaposition is part of the beauty. In order to really appreciate the full work of art, the hubby and I walk down the riverside in a slow procession of people, surrounded by the sounds, smells, and sights of city and art. For once, I don’t mind having to take a minute to pause and experience all the moment has to offer. All my senses are engaged.

(Here’s the park at night from a different angle. Providence Place Mall is in the background.)

Sight is obvious. The bright orange flames glow in the braziers, reflecting off the inky waters. Bright ash flits by us. The boats move up and down the river: the pontoons full of people, the romantic gondola designed for two, and the staff boat with the black-clad volunteers that steal up to the braziers like some kind of fire phantoms. Then there’s the city scape: the Bank of America Building (locally known as the Superman Building), which always reminds me of Dana’s apartment building in Ghostbusters; the cars driving by; the mall; the people; the bridges; and all those the city lights. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the street performers dressed as gargoyles and fortune-tellers.

Smell is pretty obvious too, given that the scent of fire is pretty distinct. These fires smell of pine and cedar. But there’s also the city smells: car exhaust, street vendors, and all those unidentifiable, funky smells that are part of city life.

Sound is prevalent as well. The wood cackles and pops as the flames hit air pockets, and the musical program that is part of the art experience echoes along the walkway (my favorite song this visit is Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major” performed by Daniel Barenboim). And of course, there’s the sounds of the city: car horns, the shuffle of feet along the walkway, quiet murmurs of the crowd, and the whir of motors of both cars and boats.


Touch is more subtle. The fires send a wave of warmth across my skin. A light breeze blows my hair around my face. The stone walkway is cool and uneven beneath my sandals.
Taste is the most elusive sense. On this trip, I have the delicious memory of the previous night’s dinner. The hubby and I went to Constantino’s on Federal Hill. We started with carpaccio (which neither of us had ever eaten) and some Riesling. Then I had gnocchi and the hubby had chicken parmigiana. Both were awesome! For dessert, I had a cannoli platter…of course! But none of that really has anything to do with the WaterFires. Sure, there’s a bunch of restaurants along the rivers, but I want a better connection between taste and fire. Well, the program informs me that Indian Buddhists believe the element water is associated with taste (fire is sight, earth is smell, and air is touch).

Even with having to stretch a little for taste, it was still a lovely evening.

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2 Comments

  • Anna says:

    Great description! You're right that WaterFire is almost indescribable – there's this whole mood to the event that's awe-inspiring. My husband introduced me to this amazing tradition a few years ago and now we try to go at least once every summer.

  • KT says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Anna. The hubby and I try to make it to WaterFire every year as well. I checked out your website…your story After the Failure sounds really interesting. Good luck finding a publisher for it!

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