Throughout the Years at the Pawtucket Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 5, 2015

It was over 16 years ago when Kristine Kilmartin married Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin. The Smithfield native had lived in the city for a few months and. while she was driving through Slater Memorial Park in January 1999 with her new husband, she asked, “Why doesn’t the City take more advantage of its green space?” She wondered why Pawtucket couldn’t plan an event like the Scituate Arts Festival in its vast 209-acre park.

Ultimately, the Kilmartins turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts festival. The green light was given and the work began. After a month of meetings, discussion and planning, the City’s 18-person committee kicked off its first arts festival in June 1999.

“It is hard to believe that 16 Pawtucket Arts Festivals have gone by so fast,” says Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who has served as an honorary co-chair with his wife, Kristine, since its inception. “When we began in 1999, there was a lot of uncertainty about the event’s success and longevity, as with any new venture,” recalls the lawyer and former Pawtucket police officer. My how the Pawtucket Arts Festival has grown.

Kilmartin remembers the Opening Gala was scarcely attended. However, the organizers were not discouraged, he says. “Everyone involved felt we had a good product, and as long as we stuck with it we would be successful,” he added.

Over the years city officials and many dedicated volunteers continued to work hard, he notes, stressing that it “now feels like the Pawtucket Arts Festival is a permanent part of our community.”

With the diversity and quality of programming over 16 years, Kilmartin finds it hard to single out one particular favorite event. But, when pressed by this tenacious columnist, he admits, “We enjoyed the Philharmonic in the Park and the Dragon Boat races,” noting that these two signature events provide “great family fun.”

Looking forward, the fifty-two-year-old lifelong Pawtucket resident believes that new forms of community outreach must happen to attract more people to the festival, this being vital for the Arts Festival’s continued growth and future success. The Attorney General also calls for the broadening of the artistic diversity and ethnicity of its programming, keeping the month-long Arts Festival “fresh.”

A Look Back: Just a Small Sampling

Since 1999, Pawtucket’s Arts Festival organizers have created a citywide showcase of visual and performing arts, interactive workshops, music, theatre and dance performances. Where else could you enjoy a wide variety of music, from blues, jazz, Zydeco, classical, folk, and even pops? Over the years 50,000 people came to listen to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Pop Orchestra, the event concluding with a dazzling firework show over the park’s pond.

Over 15 years, what a listing of musical groups that have played the Pawtucket Arts Festival. World famous Jazz artists Dave McKenna, Scott Hamilton and Gray Sargent, Grammy-nominated Duke Robillard, the internationally acclaimed “Ambassador to the Blues,” and Consuelo and Chuck Sherba’s Aurea, a performance ensemble thrilled the audiences. Many came to dance to the tunes of French-Canadian Conrad Depot, Celtic group Pendragon, folk musicians Atwater & Donnelly and Plain Folk to name a few. Many of these groups appeared on the stages at Slater Mill’s Ethnic and Labor Festival and the Stone Soup Coffee House at Slater Memorial Park or at the folk group’s home venue at St. Paul’s Parish House.

Both young and old alike enjoyed watching the Big Nazo Puppets, clowns or listening to story tellers, including Mark Binder and Valerie Tutson. Parents and their children even packed Shea High School’s auditorium to watch the incredible Dan Butterworth’s Marionette show.

And where else could your children learn the art of making glass, raku pottery or carving stone and wood? Of course, at the City’s Arts Festival. Children workshops, led by Lee Segal, taught tile painting. Youngsters learned how to create sculptures out of junk pulled from the Blackstone River. Only in the City of the “Industrial Revolution” if you had attended one of our art festivals over the last 15 years.

Every year at the City’s Festival Pier thousands of spectators have lined up along the Seekonk River to watch the Dragon Boat races. Art lovers visited one-of-a kind exhibits in art galleries and artist studios throughout Pawtucket. Those attending the City’s Arts Festival watched performances by the Everett Dance Theatre, Fusionworks, Cadence Dance Project, and great plays at the Sandra Gamm Feinstein Theatre, Mixed Magic Theater and Community Player. Film buffs came to meet writers and filmmakers at the Pawtucket Film Festival, questioning these individuals about their film-making techniques.

For movie buffs, Pawtucket-based Mirror Image, has organized its Pawtucket Film Festival for over 15 years in the 100-seat theater in the City’s Visitor Center. Rhode Islander Michael Corrente was one of the more notable film makers who accepted an invitation to attend, and many others followed. The film organizers even brought the internationally-acclaimed Alloy Orchestra to perform a live, original score for Man With a Movie Camera at Tolman High School.

You were also able to watch classic films at other Arts Festival venues, too. One year dozens came to watch Cinema Paradiso (with English subtitles) by Giuseppe Tornatore, projected on the walls of a mill building on Exchange Street, with live music.

Hundreds also gathered at Slater Park to watch chain saw-toting environmental artist and sculptor Michael Higgins Billy Rebele create pieces of artwork on salvaged tree stumps.

While focusing on bringing artistic and musical events, festival organizers did not forget to bring public art into the City. In 15 years, six permanent sculptures were donated to the City of Pawtucket. An original oil painting of the Hope Webbing Mill in Pawtucket, painted by internationally-recognized Artist Gretchen Dow-Simpson, was purchased and donated to the City in 2004, and is now showcased in the Mayor’s Office.

Some Pawtucket Arts Festival Trivia…

As Kilmartin remembered, the first opening gala, held in the City library is 1999 attracted a small crowd, around 35 people. At the end of the evening each person was given Ronzio pizzas to take home. Last year we saw over 2,000 people gather at this long awaited opening event. Crowds at the Dragon Boat races have also held steady over the years, bringing thousands to the City’s Festival Pier. For over a decade, over 6,000 people have attended the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra Concert in Slater Memorial Park. The Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance, with their very generous $15,000 donation continue to make this event happen.

For 15 years, Patricia Zacks, of the Providence-based Camera Werks and lifelong Pawtucket resident, has organized a photo contest at every arts festival, which includes participation from students from Pawtucket Public Schools, where winning photos are judged by some of the State’s top recognized photographers select their favorite photos that will appear in the City of Pawtucket’s Photo Calendar. Thousands of Pawtucket students also learned the art of photography from Zacks and over 180 scenes of Pawtucket have appeared in these calendars.

During these years, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Boston also sponsored the Chinese performances that were held throughout the day of the Dragon Boat races. Pawtucket’s annual race is now being promoted nationally by other Dragon Boat festivals. In its second year, in 2000, the Dragon Boat races second year, American Airlines donated 18 free round trip tickets to Taiwan to the winning boat, an estimated value of $60,000. This year the winning professional team will take home $10,000, while the local team winner will receive $5,000.

In the early years trolley tours led by Zacks of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative and Len Lavoie, of RICIR, initially organized trips to mill buildings throughout the City. Because of these trolley tours, at least two couples have relocated to Pawtucket to live in mill lofts in the City’s historic downtown. The trolley tours, showcasing Pawtucket artist’s one-of-a-kind works, would later be replaced by XOS- Exchange Street Open Studios and Arts Market Place Pawtucket at the historic Pawtucket Armory.

In 2005, from an idea sparked by then program chair, Patricia Zacks and community activist and Stone Soup President, Richard Walton, led them to meet with Paw-Sox executives to ‘go big’ which set off a series of acts to perform at McCoy Stadium beginning in 2006. These artists included: Bob Dylan, (twice), John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Drop Kick Murph’s; Kenny Loggins and the Boston Pops Orchestra; Further and Willie Nelson.

Since 1999 the steady growth of participating artists, corporate sponsors, volunteers and attendees indicate quality programming and a well-managed event that has become a permanent fixture in the Pawtucket community. Over 16 years, the Pawtucket Arts Festival has awakened the pride of Pawtucket’s residents and continues to stimulate the creative energies of its artist community, and have an economic impact on the City.

Chair John Baxter and his hard working Board of Directors (Rich Waltrous, Keith Fayan, Lori-Ann Gagne and this columunist), Arts Festival Manager Joe Giocastro, Artistic Director Mary Lee Partington, and Volunteer Coordinators Patricia Zacks and Paul Audette, prepare to unveil this year’s Arts Festival tonight at the Blackstone River Party/Taste of Pawtucket at 6 p.m. at Slater Mill. Let the show begin. See you there.

For a complete event listings go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org, or 1-800-454-2882.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. He serves as the Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs officer and sits of the Board of Directors of Pawtucket Arts Festival.

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