The Magic of WaterFire

July 27, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—When the sun sets, the rivers of downtown Providence are set alight with fire.

Metal braziers cradle over 80 flickering bonfires just above the surface of the rivers on which the city was founded, their flames reflected golden and shimmering in the dark waters below. The comforting crackle-pop of burning firewood echoes through the air, against a backdrop of music from around the world, mellow and haunting, that seems to emanate from everywhere at once. Glowing embers swirl towards the sky, in tandem with the soaring notes.

Thousands line the concrete shores to watch. I join those meandering along their length, doing my best to not get swept away in the crowd; others find spots to settle down, lounging on a ledge or draped over the railing of a bridge. Couples abound, arms wrapped around shoulders and heads nuzzled into necks.

We all gaze towards the waters. The atmosphere is serene, almost reverential; under the spell of the fire and the music, the crowds seem to be lulled into a state of quiet introspection. When certain songs play, the scene edges on eerily ritualistic. The night is warm, but it gives me chills.

This is WaterFire. Part public art installation, part urban festival, the annual phenomenon is the brainchild of artist Barnaby Evans, who launched the first version in 1994 as part of an effort to revitalize the city.

A ring of 22 braziers illuminates the Waterplace Park Basin—and the rings of people that gather around it. (John Nickerson/Courtesy of WaterFire Providence)

Inspired by traditions like the paseo and passeggiata, he wanted to create “a place for Americans to rediscover that cities can be walked,” he said, and to rediscover the joy in the interactions that come with that.

“I wanted to make a place where after dark in a city everyone would feel like they belonged, … an event where people would be comfortable talking to strangers,” he said. “You’ll find it works very, very well.”

Now, the lightings, spread out over the summer months into late fall, draw nearly a million visitors to downtown Providence each year. The riverfront Waterplace Park swells with throngs of locals and tourists from all walks of life.

People come for different reasons—to celebrate or mourn, to reflect in solitude or kindle a new relationship—and they leave with different experiences. That’s the point, Evans said.

“We wanted people to see it almost as a mirror,” he said. “The intention is for everyone to be able to interpret [it] as they would wish it to be interpreted.”

And yet they’re drawn in by universal appeal: the elements of water and fire, light and darkness, ancient and modern, balanced in careful coexistence.

The water borrows light from the fire; the fire is made more beautiful by its reflection in the water. WaterFire is a night of universal binaries—light and dark, fire and water—that complement, not compete with, each other. (Courtesy of Go Providence)

This year’s season kicked off in late May, and the last lighting will be in November. As a non-profit organization, WaterFire depends on visitor donations, corporate sponsorships, and teams of dedicated staff and volunteers—hundreds of them for each lighting, working from 6 in the morning to well past midnight, when the fires are left to burn out.

Until then, those volunteers keep them burning bright, patrolling the rivers by boat and fueling dying flames with fresh logs.

“It’s very much a metaphor of the necessity of the community gathering to praise life,” Evans said. “As the fires burn down low, suddenly a group of people from the community, acting together in concert, add their logs to the fire. They add their brilliance and their engagement to the livelihood and the liveliness that makes a community succeed.”

The visitors are part of that, too. As they interact with the space, with each other, and with their selves, they seem to become part of the art.

The fires are beautiful, but as I cruise along the river in a boat, mere feet from their flames and sprays of orange embers, my eyes drift to the crowds along the water. For me, my brief visit brings no life-changing revelations; it’s simply a beautiful night. But as I look around I wonder—what do they see? In their myriad faces—contemplative or cheerful, solemn or adoring, all softened and kissed golden by the velvet glow of firelight—what I think I see is the magic of WaterFire at work.

Thousands of spectators crowd the riverwalk for the lighting. (James Turner/Courtesy of WaterFire Providence)

Upcoming WaterFire Lightings:

Saturday, July 28th
Full Lighting – Sunset: 8:08 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 25th
Full Lighting – Sunset: 7:31 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 8th
Full Lighting – Sunset 7:07 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 22nd
Full Lighting – Sunset 6:43 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 29th
Full Lighting – Sunset: 6:31 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 6th
Basin Lighting – Sunset: 6:19 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 10th
Full Lighting – Sunset: 4:30 p.m.