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WaterFire Attracts Visitors to Providence, Rhode Island


Ablaze on the rivers from March to October each year, WaterFire Providence in the capital city of the northeastern state of Rhode Island is cited as the "most popular work of art" in the city's 365 years history, and a "moving symbol of Providence's renaissance". For producer Joseph Mok, VOA's Elaine Lu has the story.

With crackling flames, enchanting music and the fragrant mixture of pine, oak, and cedar, WaterFire Providence pleasantly overwhelms people's senses in every possible way. Constructed on three rivers in the heart of downtown Providence, this unusual work of art has been attracting millions of visitors since 1994.

Barnaby Evans is the visionary behind the artwork. "Fire is a symbol of life but it's also a symbol of destruction and death, and sort of end of life also," he says. "And I wonder if one can combine it with water, so you got the Yin Yang effect of the opposition between the two. And also water, which is a symbol of life and also a symbol of formlessness and chaos and death, could also balance the fire. And somehow between those two poles you have this essence of what our human life is all about."

Along the city's riverbanks, people gather around the fire to immerse themselves in the light and the warmth, a pilgrimage that unites the community, exactly what Evans had in mind while creating the artwork.

"On top of that you add this idea of trying to create a civic ritual where we got the entire community together at one place celebrating their mutual achievements together."

WaterFire has been almost synonymous with the revival of the city since the early 90s, when Mayor David Cicilline took office. Cicilline says the project revitalized downtown Providence, but it initially had its doubters.

"We cannot imagine Providence without WaterFire today, but at the time in 1994 when it was first proposed it was kind of unusual. And no one was sure if it would be successful. There was a small investment from the city to support it early on."

Cicilline says that it quickly became obvious that WaterFire was something very special, and deserved the support of the state and city government.

WaterFire would not have expanded in size from a few dozen bonfires at the start to 100 today without ardent supporters who volunteer each year. Volunteer Michael Brandel, says, "I go up and down the water and play very short pieces of pantomime and presenting people our trademark carnations."

Another volunteer, Tom Payne, shares his expertise. "I worked as a media producer and engineer. The audio you hear throughout the park during the event to a large extent is made possible with my effort."

Volunteer "Joe" adds, "We are just coming up and lighting fires. All the gondolas are on the river passing us by. We are just presenting a nice atmosphere for the people who come into Providence."

Visitors flood the city during the lighting season each year, sitting, strolling and stealing a moment of escape from the mundane world outside the WaterFire.

The mesmerizing elements of murmuring water and flickering fire, blended with quiet conversations create the perfect ambiance for romance. One woman touring the event said, "It's gets all dark. And then, you see these flames all up and down the river. Gondola rides are available. So, it is just a fun thing and it doesn't cost anything."

The life of WaterFire continues even as the flames are doused: For gondolas meandering on the river, for the art student working on a sketch, and for the newlywed couple that wishes to freeze this moment in time.

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