It’s a balmy summer night in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, when I step into a boat on the Providence River and out of the ordinary world.
The boat glides smoothly over the black, quietly undulating water and past a hypnotic series of bonfires that are ablaze on the river itself. The hot flames crackle up through the summer air and reflect in a rippling glow on the dark, cool river. Sparks jump and dance into the sky, before drifting back to earth and dying on the water. A couple kisses on a stone footbridge above our heads, silhouetted in the firelight, and then disappears from view as the boat glides on. A haunting array of music—from Marian Anderson’s regal rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” to Luciano Pavarotti’s soaring tenor singing a selection from the Puccini opera Turandot—rings through the night. The boat is full, yet its passengers are quiet, all under the same spell, rocking gently and utterly transfixed.
I lose track of time. It might be an hour that we’re on the river, or maybe just 15 minutes. I can’t tell. When the boat bumps against the dock, signaling the end of our ride, I feel the need to shake myself alert, to ready myself for a reemergence into the real world.
This is WaterFire, a huge public art installation and community event that ignites every sense as it lights up the river in downtown Providence with rows of flaming sculpture. It’s spectacular, not simply because of the scale and beauty of what’s happening on the river, but because of everything that’s going on around it. The entire riverfront area is transformed into a performance art venue.
Along the river banks and beyond, artists fire glass to create jewelry, and manipulate paper into delicate origami pieces. There are living gargoyles and a lively art fair. There’s even a “public caresser,” which is just as strange as it sounds: a man (or woman?) wearing black head to toe, except for red gloves and a faceless white mask, waiting to gently caress and embrace willing passersby.
“Anyone can come up to be caressed,” says Barnaby Evans, the artist mastermind behind WaterFire, as if the idea of being caressed on the street by an anonymous stranger is the most natural thing in the world.
But in Providence, it just might be. This small city that’s only a 90-minute drive from the North Shore is a bastion of the arts, a place that embraces the peculiar and loves the imaginative.
It’s a place where it’s totally normal to see a guy with an enormous Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor draped over his shoulders as he walks down the sidewalk; or flowers, rocks, sunglasses, and other talismans left on the grave of horror author H.P. Lovecraft; or a huge, seemingly disembodied hand revealing itself to be part of a remarkably lifelike public art mural of a man painted on the façade of a downtown brick building.
You can get gourmet tater tots and a can of Schlitz beer at Ogie’s Trailer Park restaurant, and see cooking artifacts ranging from an ancient Greek bread stamp to a neon Howard Johnson’s sign at the Johnson and Wales Culinary Arts Museum. There’s also “Big Nazo,” a performance art show filled with costumed performers that looks like the Star Wars cantina scene come to life.
For North Shore residents, it’s easy to pack an entire weekend getaway around WaterFire and Providence’s quirky, artsy attractions. Rather than simply being a one-off calendar item, WaterFire happens in Providence many times throughout the year. Although most people experience WaterFire from the banks of the river, seeing it on the river—via gondolas, open-air dinner boats, or scenic rides—adds another, otherworldly dimension to the experience.
A couple of blocks away from the riverbank is the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) fantastic, world-renowned art museum. Wander the galleries and you’ll find ancient Roman mosaics, sculptures of majestic Etruscan warriors, and statues of Egyptian temple gods, gelatin silver prints by Andy Warhol, and paintings by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. You’ll see colorful pop art by David Hockney and one of the most extensive collections of textiles and costumes in the country, with items ranging from a sixth-century Egyptian tunic panel to modern designs by Ottavio Missoni and Todd Oldham. Also worthy of a visit is the RISD Works Museum Store, which carries eclectic jewelry, housewares, decorative items, prints, and more from RISD graduates and faculty.
The RISD Works Museum Store isn’t the only place in Providence where art and retail collide. At the Providence Flea, people can stroll along the Providence River Greenway in search of funky vintage and handmade treasures at a juried outdoor urban flea market, replete with food trucks and vendors like Paco’s Tacos and Ellie’s Bakery. Across the river there’s The Arcade, a small indoor mall that’s packed with shops like the beautifully curated vintage store Carmen and Ginger and the fashion collective Nude, helmed by Project Runway alum Jonathan Joseph Peters, and featuring handmade and custom-made clothing, accessories, and jewelry with real-world price tags. Visitors will also find Lovecraft Arts & Sciences, a store that’s also a headquarters for all things H.P. Lovecraft and related books and goods.
Boston and New York City might dominate North Shore residents’ urban getaways, but making room for Providence will guarantee a fun weekend that’s delightfully out of the ordinary. In the words of Lovecraft himself: “All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings.”