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.

Red Bandana Fund Concert to be Walton’s Legacy

Published in Pawtucket Times, June 7, 2013

           Richard Walton, who died on Dec. 27, would have loved it.  Five months after his death one late Sunday afternoon, over 40 people including the musicians who had just played at The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert (that was attended by hundreds), family members along with the organizers and volunteers of this fundraiser, gathered to drink beer and reminisce about Walton’s extraordinary life at his favorite Pawtucket hangout, Doherty’s East Avenue Irish Pub.

          People swapped favorite stories for hours, detailing how the late Walton “touched their lives,” noted one attendee, Richard Wahlberg, one of the organizers.  “Every one had such an interesting story to tell about Richard,” he stated, noting that the Warwick resident, known as a social activist, educator, humanitarian, very prolific writer, and a co-founder of Pawtucket’s Stone Soup Coffee House “had made everyone feel that they themselves had a very special, close relationship with him.” 

         Seeing so many of Walton’s friends at June 2nd concert, Wahlberg and other attending viewed the event as a “gathering of the clan” since the audience was really Walton’s extended Rhode Island family.    

 Walton’s Legacy of Supporting the Needy

         The idea to organize last weekend’s fundraiser concert to raise money to support the causes of the late Richard Walton and others like him who work to improve the human condition was literally kicked around a few days after Walton’s death by his daughter, Cathy Barnard, his son Richard and a few close friends, noted nationally-acclaimed children’s entertainer and storyteller, Bill Harley.   

          According to Harley, an annual fundraiser, supporting the newly formed Red Bandana Fund, would replace Walton’s annual birthday bash – usually held the first Sunday in June – to raise money for Amos House & the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project and other progressive causes.  Over 24 years, Walton had raised large sums of money for these favorite charities, attracting hundreds of people each year including the state’s powerful political and media elite to celebrate his progressive causes at his family compound located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick. 

         Coming up with a name for Walton’s fundraiser that would ultimately be tied to his unique fashion sense and was the idea of her brother, Richard, states Barnard.  Her brother, like most people, had a vivid, visual image of his father, who had long white hair and beard, being known for wearing his trademark worn blue jean overalls, a red bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap.

          “When Dad’s closest friends came over to the house after his death they wanted one of his red bandanas to remember him,” Barnard remembered.

       “It was like a talisman to them,” stated Barnard, that became a great way to create the perfect moniker and recognition for an upcoming fundraiser.

          Barnard says that her father didn’t opt for a traditional burial, so there would be no monument of stone over his grave to remember him or a place for family and friends to visit.  His cremated remains were scattered the day before the Sunday fundraiser by his family and very close friends in his beloved garden and sent by paper boat from the inlet where his compound was located into Narragansett Bay.

         But, there is The Red Bandana Fund now, says Barnard, noting that “we cannot think of a more appropriate memorial.”  Over 300 people attended the inaugural Walton fundraiser, bringing in more than $12,000 from ticket sales, silent action and raffle.

          At this event, the first recipient of The Red Bandana Fund Award, Amos House, was chosen because of Walton’s very long relationship with the Providence-based nonprofit.  He was a founding board member, serving for over 30 years, being board chair for a number of years.  For almost three decades, the homeless advocate spent an overnight shift with the men who lived in the 90-Day Shelter Program each Thursday bringing them milk and cookies.  Each Friday morning he would make pancakes and eggs in the soup kitchen for hundreds of men and women who came to eat a hot meal.

 Putting the Pieces Together

         The organizers were gathered by Bill Harley on the advice of Richard’s family and those closest to him from the progressive community and organizations Richard was affiliated with.  In true Richard Walton fashion this was a largely self organizing group built on the complementary strengths of the members, noted Wahlberg.  Over five months, this group had planned all the organizational facets, from marketing, pre-selling tickets, booking Shea High School, recruiting volunteers for the day of the event, along with getting items donated to be sold at a silent auction and raffle.

         With the decision to host a fundraising concert, “it became incredibly painful to have to limit the list of who we would invite to play,” said Harley, noting that every one who knew Walton wanted to perform to pay tribute to him.

          As Rudy Cheeks, of Phillipe + Jorge’s Cool, Cool, World, would remark in his May 31st column, the two hour concert would be an amazing blend of folk and traditional music, a little bit of classical, along with singer-songwriting greats, all sharing the same stage for the evening.  They included: widely recognized singers and song writers, Bill Harley, Kate Katzberg, Atwater-Donnelly, Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen, Christina Tompson, accompanied by Cathy Clasper-Torch on fiddle and Marty Ballou on stand up bass.  Consuelo Sherba opened the concert by playing a short classical set.

        According to Harley, who served as the event’s musical director, internet files of the selected music (three songs for each performer) went back and forth between those chosen to play, to help them to quickly learn the music to be played at the upcoming concert.  He noted that each song had to have simple chord arrangements with words that the audience could easily remember. Most important, “these songs were chosen to reflect who Richard, the person was,” he said.  Amazingly, the musicians would gather just two hours before the performance to practice with each other.

 Those Who Knew Him

         At intermission, I caught up with Andy Smith, former music critic at the Providence Journal who now covers hard news for that daily paper.  He knew Walton for years covering Stone Soup Coffee House and sporadically attending his legendary birthday party over the years.  “No one could hang out in Rhode Island without knowing about Richard Walton,” he says.  That’s true.

         The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert was a “very sweet, very nice chance for people who know Richard to come together and celebrate his life,” observed Smith, noting that “the best way to do this was through music.”  He would have had a good time if he were here today, says Smith, adding that  “May be he is here [in spirit].”

         Like many attendees, Jane Falvey, treasurer of Stone Soup Coffee House noted, that Walton touched many lives. “Like stones cast into a pond, the ripples form ever-widening circles that overlap, and so it was at the inaugural Red Bandana Concert – Richard’s many circles embracing each other in remembering and celebrating his wonderful life and the purpose he created in all of us,” she said.

        Also in attendance, Dr. Michael Fine, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health, who came with his wife, Carol, called Walton  his “old friend,”  giving him a unique descriptive nickname, the “Prince of Pay it Forward.”

         Dr. Fine believes that Walton understood the value of living in a democracy. “He taught us about this value and gave us examples of what we would have to do each and every day to keep it alive,” he said.  Walton also taught us how to take care of each other,” stated Dr. Fine. 

         Linde Rachel, a resident of Maureillas, France, and companion of Walton’s for 9 years who traveled with him throughout Europe, Africa and the Baltic States, sees an important message in the songs sung at last Sunday’s The Red Bandana Fundraiser.  “The songs were all about being part of a community, the one that he helped to create and was part of,” stated Rachel.   

         Days later, Barnard tells me that she is thrilled with the success of The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert.  “We were amazed at the large turnout,” she says, noting that she even met people in person she had heard her father talk about over his long years.

         “We’re hoping that this will be just the beginning and not the end of it,” says Barnard, the beginning legacy of her father’s long-tradition of giving back to those in need.

       Her father would surely nod his head in agreement.

          For more information about donating to The Red Bandana Fund, go to http://www.soup.org/page1/RedBandana.html.

         Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Activist Richard J. Walton’s Great Adventure in Life and Death

Published January 4, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Throughout his 84 years, Richard J. Walton served as a role model for generations of activists, watching out and protecting Rhode Island’s voiceless citizens, showing all that positive societal changes could be made by making sound arguments. With his last breath, he even taught us how to face death.

Walton, age 84, died on December 27 at Rhode Island Hospital. He had been treated for leukemia for about six months, says daughter, Cathy Walton Barnard, of Simsbury, Connecticut, who noted his last words, “I’m going on a great adventure.”

Walton Touched Many Lives

Even with many in Walton’s vast progressive and activist networks knowing about his illness, people were caught off guard by his sudden passing one week ago, stated Rick Wahlberg, a computer consultant and a former president of Stone Soup Coffee House, who worked closely with Walton on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors for over 20 years and developed close personal ties. “We considered him part of our family just like many others did,” he said. .

According to Wahlberg, a Cumberland resident, Walton was part of New York’s intelligentsia scene, [mingling with writers at the Lion’s Head, a bar a few steps down from Christopher Street] in Greenwich Village, where he lived making a living as a writer.

Wahlberg viewed Walton as a “great example of morality, humanity and a supporter of nonviolence,” noting that his friend led an amazing life that help shaped his progressive point of view and that of his two daughters. When his oldest daughter, Corinne, heard of Walton’s passing, she remarked, “he did more in one lifetime than most.”

Over the years, Wahlberg, 59, and his wife, Barbara, attended Walton’s birthday parties that would raise large sums of money for his favorite charities, attracting the state’s powerful political and media elite right to his family compound, located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick. This legendary fundraising event occurred from 1988 to 2011, bringing hundreds of people each year to celebrate his progressive causes. Due to his health in 2012, for the first time, Walton’s birthday was held at the Roots Cultural Center in Providence.

Joyce Katzberg, 59, folksinger and a founding organizer of Stone Soup Coffee House, spent decades protesting with Walton at vigils, rallies and picket lines. She remembers him as a kind, honest person. When necessary, he was not afraid of using the “F word,” she quipped, noting that this word stood for fascism. His social advocacy “has left many ripples and impacted many Rhode Island nonprofits,” she adds.

“Richard called things for what they were, said things in ways that were hard to argue with because he had the facts, knew the background stories and did his home work. He cared enough to tell the truth,” said Katzberg, stressing how he excelled at moderating views between people with differing positions.

Bruce McCrae (a.k.a. Rudy Cheeks), a co-author of Phillip and Jorge column in the weekly Providence Phoenix, who knew Walton for over 30 years as a social activist, educator and a strong advocate for traditional American Folk music, had his thoughts about his recent passing. “There is no doubt in my mind that Rhode Island would have been a much different and poorer place without his constant presence. He was a mentor to generations of students and social activists and one of the strongest voices for peace and equality that Rhode Island has ever known,” he said.

McCrae, 62, says his efforts for social change extended internationally to Africa where, in 1960, he worked on a number of documentary films on the emerging independence movements on that continent and to Latin America, where he started the Sister Cities Project between Providence and Niquinohomo, Nicaragua, helping to build a medical facility and school there.

One of the City of Pawtucket’s most visible social advocates, Maggi Burns Rogers, remembers Walton as someone who worked hard to improve the world without forgetting how to enjoy it. “He loved to laugh, eat, drink, was an avid gardener, knew his music, read literature and even traveled the world.” (In between his social activism, teaching and writing, during his long life Walton traveled to over 50 countries, making return trips to many of them.),

“Richard won’t be remembered for just one thing because he brought his talent to so many different nonprofits,” says Rogers, including Amos House, the George Wiley Center, Stone Soup Coffee House, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and the Pawtucket Arts Festival Executive Committee to name just a few.

With his long white beard, President Betsy Florin, of the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, viewed Walton as a Santa Claus-like figure. But unlike Santa, he gave every day of the year, all of his life, she said. “His real gift was not something tangible that could be wrapped in a pretty box and placed under a tree, it was, rather a gift of imagination combined with activism.”

Walton “imagined a world of decency and fairness and then sought to make that happen,” said Florin.

As to Walton’s daughter, Barnard, 52, even in her earliest childhood memories she remembers her father as being an activist, who once marched with his young daughter at a gay pride parade. While not being an activist to “his degree” the Preschool teacher is very politically active in her local community.

Today, Barnard is a diehard New York Mets fan. When Barnard and her brother visited their father in New York, he often took them to watch the team play at Shea Stadium. (As noted in an Op Ed penned by Walton in 2000, throughout his life Walton’s favorite baseball player and hero was Hank Greenberg, a Jewish baseball player who played in the major leagues in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily for the Detroit Tigers. He was considered to be one of the premier power hitters of his generation. Walton noted that Greenberg, who experienced anti Semitism, would encourage another player subject to slurs from the sidelines, that was Jackie Robinson.)

Six Lifetimes Jammed into One

Walton’s life is richly detailed in Wikipedia, a web-based free content encyclopedia.

Born in Saratoga Springs, New York, Walton grew up in South Providence in the 1930s, graduating from Classical High School in 1945. After taking a two year break from his studies at Brown University, serving as a journalist mate in the U.S. Navy, he returned to receive a bachelor’s degree in 1951. He whet his appetite for music by working as disc jockey at Providence radio station WICE before enrolling in Columbia School of Journalism where he later earned a masters in journalism degree in 1955.

Walton’s training at Brown University and the School of Journalism at Columbia propelled him into a writing career. During his early years he worked as a reporter at the Providence Journal, and the New York World Telegram and Sun. At Voice of America in Washington, D.C., Walton would initially put in time reporting on African issues, ultimately being assigned to cover the United Nations.

The prolific writer would eventually publish 12 books, nine being written as critical assessments of U.S. Foreign policy. In the late 1960s, as a freelance writer, he made his living by writing for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, Newsday, The [old] New Republic, Cosmopolitan, even Playboy. He was also the former UN Secretary-General U Thant’s personal editor for his memoir, “The View from the United Nations.”

In 1981, after 26 years of living outside of Rhode Island, he would return, ultimately becoming one of the most recognizable social activists around, fighting against hunger, homelessness and poverty. The journalist would run for political office and was active in the Citizens Party [the predecessor to the Green Party]. He ran as the political group’s vice presidential candidate in 1984 with the radical feminist Sonia Johnson. They did not win.

For over 25 years, Walton has taught writing to thousands of students at Rhode Island College (RIC). Walton fought to successfully establish a union at this university, hammering out a contract, ultimately serving as its first president until his death. With his death, RIC President Nancy Carriuolo called for lowering the flags on campus to half-staff in his memory.

Walton was married to Margaret Hilton and Mary Una Jones, both marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by his daughter Cathy Walton Barnard and son Richard Walton and three grandchildren.

Big Shoes to Fill

Walton, with his long white hair and beard, wearing his trademark blue overalls, bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap, serves as a role model to the younger generations of social activists, those who will take up his worthy causes to fight for justice, to end poverty, hunger, and homelessness. He taught us how to live life to the fullest, exploring the world while not forgetting to help those in need.

Walton’s life turned out to be a grand adventure. But even with death approaching he taught us to take that leap of faith into the unknown, recognizing that death, too, can be and even grander adventure.

The family is planning a memorial service to be held the first weekend in June.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.