Alums who do cool things: WaterFire founder Barnaby Evans ’75

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WaterFire is often cited as one of Providence’s premier attractions and an event which every Brown student should experience at least once in his or her time here. It’s no coincidence, then, that WaterFire founder and Executive Artistic Director Barnaby Evans ’75 attended Brown, back when the New Curriculum was still new and Providence was an entirely different city. He spoke with us about his influences, his goals, and how WaterFire and the multi-disciplinary, international nature of Providence are influencing projects across the globe.

BlogDH: What drew you to Brown?

Evans: Absolutely the New Curriculum. I was fascinated that a university was going to affirmatively talk about the importance of cross-disciplinary scholarship and engagement, and I think that we’ve made such great advances in many fields… but there’s a tremendous amount to be learned about the dialogue and the areas between fields. And that’s what I liked about Brown; that Brown wasn’t accidentally going to engage that. It was going to go head-on and say ‘this is important.’ You saw that in a lot of different things, like the way the medical program is set up.

BlogDH: Was there anything particularly formative about your time at Brown that you think helped influence your development of WaterFire?

Evans: I think Brown opened a whole series of universes to me in a very graceful way, and caused me to realize the complexity and interdependence of many of these departments, so that I was comfortable engaging in different dialogues of different disciplines in a way that I don’t think I otherwise would have been. And there’s a great balance at Brown, I’ve found, between the dialogue of making a decision, the rigorousness of the scholarship, and also the engagement to make a difference and make a positive change. You’ve got to have all those things balanced together, and I think Brown does that and, more specifically, the student who chooses to come to Brown does that. Of equal importance is what I learned from my fellow students as what I learned from my professors at the institution. There’s a collegiality and a professionalism at all levels that I think exemplifies liberal education, and I think Brown should be very proud of that.

BlogDH: During an environmental science class I took in the fall, one of our reference points for using natural features to help revitalize urban areas was WaterFire. You’ve undertaken similar projects in Rome and Singapore, but how central do you think the Providence River and Providence as a whole are to the WaterFire experience?

Evans: WaterFire originally came from a design I created for Berlin, so it actually had no connection to Providence whatsoever in the beginning. But my intention in putting it in Providence was to respond very specifically to the micro-structure scale of this city. Another intention was to connect Providence to the entire world of influences of mankind. It’s the universality of our interests in light and water and moving water and music and being together. I’m trying to stress the absolute universality around the world of what attracts us to WaterFire, and I want to bring Providence’s up to the scale so people realize what we’re capable of here.

BlogDH: Do you find that WaterFire’s proximity to College Hill contributes anything specifically to the experience?

Evans: I would turn the question around a little bit, in that I think one of the failures of the interaction between Brown and the city is getting students off the campus and more into downtown. I think there are amazing things to be discovered in Providence; it’s a very interesting city, it’s got some real challenges that we could use the students’ ideas and engagement with. I’m really interested in exposing the students at Brown and RISD to more of the world beyond their campus. So to a certain extent we want this [gestures at the downtown area] to be a glittering, curious thing to come down to, but I’m also really proud that we’re the best cheap date in the world. We want all kinds of young lovers of every variety, of every age from 90 to 12, and to just sit here and enjoy the space. We’re also interested in doing collaborations; we’ve done things with dance groups and that kind of thing. So if you’re a group and are interested in performing, give us a call, because the hardest thing for a new project is getting an audience to it. A really diverse audience comes [to WaterFire] on a regular basis and we’re always looking for things to share with them. It doesn’t need to be an art piece; it could be a polling piece about the economic influence, it could be a sociology piece, it could be a history piece, it could be an oral history project. If there’s poetry, and people would like to do live performance poetry at WaterFire; almost anything in any department.

BlogDH: Can you think of any activities, sights, or events that Brown students might not necessarily know about in Providence that you think they should experience? 

Evans: I’m not going to cite one specific thing. We have a vibrant, rich arts community here,  ranging from ballet to modern dance to symphonic music, that I encourage people to get out there and see. But we also have a government structure – both at the city level and the state level – which is very open to people getting involved with working to solve things. I learned more from doing projects than I did from studying in a class. It’s not so much that there’s some treasure they wouldn’t miss, other than the whole world here at the foot of the Hill. It’s very accessible, and I think all of us would learn more the more we engage with other people, particularly people we don’t know.

BlogDH: Are there any other college towns, in New England or otherwise, that you feel could benefit from projects similar to WaterFire?

Evans: Providence has had to manage a transition to a knowledge economy from a manufacturing economy that was based on mills and water power, and that’s a hard transition because the economy is still based on manufactured objects. So we’re in the process of moving over to a knowledge economy; Brown is a big part of that. And I think what differentiates Providence from many other towns – Cambridge and New Haven are doing similar things – what characterizes Providence in a positive way is it’s an accessible scale. It’s very difficult to get things done in Boston, although it’s a great city – I’ve done projects there – and it’s just so much more difficult to get to the mayor, getting the permission, et cetera. But what’s great about Providence is that you can get stuff done here and gather the experience that’s necessary to do stuff in Berlin or Beijing.

BlogDH: What do you think the individual student at Brown could do to get more involved with the community and help add to Providence’s ongoing renewal?

Evans: I’m not going to give them a specific prescription, because I don’t know their talents and their interests and what engages them, but I guarantee that if they walk out of the campus from whatever perspective they come from, and look constructively for a way to get engaged, they will find collaborators and partners and allies and challenges that will be engaging to be involved with. I think they will also find it to be an amazing addition to their learning environment. That’s what I did.

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