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.

It Takes a “Village” to Organize an Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 30, 2013

Years ago, the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote a book It Takes a Village, attributing the title to an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The book details the impact individuals and groups outside the family make on meeting a child’s needs.

City government does not always have the financial means or resources to organize large community gatherings, successfully. Just as it takes a “Village” to assist parents in raising their children, it takes the commitment of dedicated community volunteers in a “Village,” that is Pawtucket, to work closely with City government to organize and host one of the largest arts and cultural festivals in the Ocean State, maybe even in New England: the Pawtucket Arts Festival (PAF).

The upcoming month-long PAF, organized by Pawtucket’s Department of Planning and Redevelopment, leading cultural and service organizations, as well as community volunteers, is scheduled for September 6 to September 29, at various locations throughout the City.

With more than two centuries of story to showcase, the PAF turns the spotlight on glorious Slater Memorial Park, the Blackstone River and the riverfront, and the city’s contemporary blue-collar urban core, with its restored mills and commercial spaces that now house visual arts and recording studios, galleries and fabricators, as well as two of New England’s most highly regarded theatres, the Gamm Theatre and Mixed Magic Theatre.

The City’s arts festival celebrates a legacy of creativity and innovation that dates way back to 1790, when a young textile wizard from England, Samuel Slater, made the Blackstone River Valley and the City of Pawtucket the Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and the place where artisans and craftsmen first gathered.

Now in its 15th year, the Pawtucket Arts Festival is overseen by Pawtucket resident John Baxter. PAF Chairman Baxter, a senior level staffer for the Rhode Island Senate, and his executive committee of 16 volunteers are about ready to see the fruit of their year-long planning.

Performing Arts Chair Mary Lee Partington says, “The performing arts focus of the Pawtucket Arts Festival is aimed at interpreting the region’s innovative and entrepreneurial energy through the state’s resident artists…many of whom perform and introduce new and original material during the month-long Festival.”

Partington notes the range of offerings from classical, traditional, or folk music and dance to Aurea, Opera Providence, and jazz artists Greg Abate and Duke Robillard and their ensembles, as well as theatre at The Gamm and performance art from TEN31 Productions. Pawtucket’s widely-acclaimed arts festival reaches across geography and genres to show the performing arts at work in Rhode Island and among our national and international touring artists.

“We tell Rhode Island’s story through the arts…here, there, and everywhere,” stresses Partington.

Here are some of the major events of the first weekend of the upcoming Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Celebration in the Streets

Next Friday, on September 6, PAF organizers kick off the first ever Blackstone River Party: Taste of the Valley, brought to you by Schofield Printing. The event, drawing thousands to the grounds of the historic Slater Mill Museum and the blocked off Roosevelt Ave., is scheduled from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The City’s largest downtown block party offers food and dessert samplings served by some of the finest restaurants in Pawtucket and the surrounding Blackstone Valley communities. A cash bar is available.

Crowds will gather on the large dance floor under a huge white tent as Rhode Island’s high energy Zydeco band, Slippery Sneakers, begins playing at 6:00 p.m., concluding at 8:00 p.m. After a brief break, headliner Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic take the stage from 8:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Admission is $10. Children under 12 are admitted free. The event is “Rain or Shine.” Advance tickets can be purchased at the City Visitor Center.

On September 7-8, the performing arts share the stage with visual arts and fine craft when more than 50 artists show their one-of-a-kind work at Arts Marketplace: Pawtucket (www.artsmarketplacepawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in the Pawtucket Armory Center for the Arts. Surrounding the 119 year old historic armory, XOS-Exchange Open Studios (www.xospawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., brings art buyers into the studios of more than 60 artists located throughout four renovated mills in the City’s Pawtucket Amory District.

According to Joan Hausrath, a retired college professor and artist at Riverfront Lofts across from Pawtucket City Hall, XOS Exchange Street Open Studios attracted more than 2000 people last year for its 2-day inaugural event. One of the benefits of having open studios in her neighborhood is that visitors can easily walk from one mill to another – all located within one block of each other, and they are just yards from Exit 29 off I-95, the artist noted.

Hausrath and her fellow organizers of this event invited artists from the other mills in Pawtucket to participate as guest artists, to increase the concentration of talent within the grand, historic structures that provide creative home and work space for these gifted citizens of the arts.

Jam Packed First Weekend

Also, on September 7 other festivities include The Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival on the Blackstone River, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at School Street Pier (presented by Schofield Printing); the Lighting of Pawtucket’s New Bridge (4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.); Slater Mill Museum’s new In-OVATION Festival featuring the Duke Robillard Jazz Trio and the Matt Macaulay Trio and more (12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m.). Meanwhile, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, will be offered by Opera Providence, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., at the City Visitor Center, and The Samaritans of RI, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., showcases their intimate fine arts gallery and In-OVATION Festival After Party with Unforgettable September Music at Forget-Me-Not Gallery on Park Place.

Finally, among the new PAF events this year is the Pawtucket Rotary Club’s Food Trucks on the Blackstone (www.blackstonefoodtrucks.com), offering a food fair (and beer tent) on September 7-8, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., near Pawtucket City Hall, to hungry families, art shoppers, and audience attending Slater Mill Museum free musical performances.

On September 8, Slater Mill’s Labor, Ethnic and Heritage Festival, presents one of the Ocean State’s longest-running folk music and heritage-arts festivals. Initiated in the late 1980’s in partnership with the Rhode Island labor community and affiliated unions, the L&E Festival celebrated 25 years in 2012. The Sunday event, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., shines its spotlight on folk and ethnic music, the artisans of the Community Guilds Studio and gifted regional artists and artisans.

Creative Co-advisor to In-OVATION FESTIVAL and the Labor & Ethnic Heritage Festival at Slater Mill is Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee Ken Lyon, a blues and folk music legend who helped design this year’s music festivals, who lists the L&E lineup with members of Magnolia, The Greg Abate Jazz Quartet, The Eastern Medicine Singers, Joyce Katzberg & Jimmy Warren, Bill Petterson, The Zimmermen (presenting the repertoire of Bob Dylan) and more.

Admission for the folk music festival on the grounds of Slater Mill is free. Admission prices for Slater Mill tours are listed at http://www.slatermill.org. Special preview tours “RI Labor History 1790-1830” by Slater Mill interpretive guide Joey L DeFrancesco of “Joey Quits” You Tube fame, will be offered.

Logistics Co-Chair Paul Audette, a semi-retired businessman who serves as a volunteer festival organizer, has seen the Arts Festival “grow up” and offer more sophisticated artistic presentations. “Programming reaches out to more people in a larger geographic area to showcase Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley region positively,” he observes, noting that this year’s events are more varied and offer something for everyone.

Adds Chairman Baxter, “I continue to be amazed that the Pawtucket Arts Festival, with its limited financial and manpower resources, manages to produce this remarkable event again and again.” Community volunteers and arts and cultural organizations are truly the life-blood of the City’s largest festival, Baxter observes. “Without the incredible support of the City Administration, the local business community, the cultural enterprise community, and these volunteers, the Pawtucket Arts Festival would never happen.”

Keeping Kristine’s Vision Alive

In 1999, Kristine Kilmartin, newly married to her husband Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin, had lived in Pawtucket for only a few months. The Smithfield native was driving through Slater Memorial Park in early January with her new husband when she asked why the City didn’t take more advantage of its green space. Kristine wondered why the City couldn’t do something like the Scituate Arts Festival in the City’s 209-acre park. The Kilmartin’s turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts
festival. After a month of meetings, discussion, and planning, the City created an 18-person volunteer committee to begin planning the first Arts Festival.

Fifteen years later, volunteers from the community have kept Kristine’s vision alive, annually bringing new life in September to the City’s downtown and to its largest municipal park.

For more details and updated information on the 2013 Pawtucket Arts Festival, go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org.

Herb Weiss, Leadership RI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. As Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer for the City of Pawtucket, he provides staff support to the Pawtucket Arts Festival organizers.