For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, WaterFire is back in full-force. Last Saturday’s lighting, which was attended by between 30,000 and 50,000 people, celebrated local educators and was supported by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“WaterFire’s mission is to build community through art,” said Barnaby Evans ’75, executive artistic director at WaterFire. Figuring “out how one can acknowledge, interact with and thank people in the community for what they do — that’s absolutely core to WaterFire’s mission.”
In order to honor Rhode Island educators, Saturday’s WaterFire featured a public reception for the state’s teachers, partners and administrators. Current and former teachers delivered speeches at the reception, attended by over 500 people. Over 70 teachers were recognized for their work at an awards ceremony.
To further honor Rhode Island educators, the event was the only one of the season to feature lighting ceremonies at both ends of the installation, said Peter Mello, managing director and co-chief executive of WaterFire. Typically, the lighting ceremony begins at Waterplace Park by the Providence Place Mall, but last weekend, the installation was also simultaneously lit at Memorial Park down the river.
“Teachers are a critical component of any community and we don’t publicly thank them,” Evans said. “But these are people entrusted with the next generation, with passing on both knowledge and expertise to allow democracy to work with an informed electorate. WaterFire has always felt that this is a critical element of making the community stronger.”
WaterFire has recognized Rhode Island educators for over a decade, Evans said. When all WaterFire lightings were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the organization provided a modified online celebration for educators and brought a lighted torch to the home of RIDE’s Rhode Island Teacher of the Year as a symbolic gesture, according to Evans.
This is the first season in which WaterFire is back in its full capacity, Mello said. In 2020 and 2021, WaterFire was put on pause for 20 months due to COVID-19. When the ceremonies began again in September 2021, WaterFire took several COVID precautions to decrease crowding, including limiting food and arts vendors.
But Saturday’s lighting drew between 30,000 and 50,000 people, Mello said, and included several local food vendors and more than a dozen artists and maker stalls.
Kelly Yan ’24 decided on a whim to go to last weekend’s WaterFire. “The weather was still pretty nice (at 9 p.m.), and I just wanted to take a walk,” Yan said. “And then I remembered WaterFire was happening.”
Yan noticed that there were many more vendors, decorations and festivities this year than last.
“The whole ambiance was very peaceful and wholesome,” Yan added.
“We were excited to see so many people there,” Evans said. “But the larger purpose of WaterFire is about building community, and we do that not just by creating art … but also by reaching out to recognize all sorts of different people in the community who are doing important work.”