SKOWHEGAN — Selectmen got a first look Tuesday night at “Kennebec on Fire,” a collaborative public art project proposed by the Wesserunsett Arts Council and Main Street Skowhegan.
That’s fire on the Kennebec River — an idea that was inspired by the Maine Arts Commission and by the long-running WaterFire project in Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 80 bonfires and artwork by award-winning sculptor Barnaby Evans have been installed on the three rivers of downtown Providence, according to a memo on the project sent to Skowhegan selectmen.
Evans created “First Fire” in 1994 as a commission to celebrate the 10th anniversary of First Night Providence, according to the WaterFire web site.
In June 1996, Evans created “Second Fire” for the International Sculpture Conference, where it became the gathering place for thousands of participants from all over the world. Art supporters convinced Evans to create an ongoing fire installation and started a grass-roots effort to establish WaterFire as a nonprofit arts organization.
In Skowhegan, Main Street Executive Director Kristina Cannon and Mary Haley, the project coordinator for WesArts, see the local project as “a tool to help revitalize Somerset County communities.”
“This is a public art project that we are still conceptualizing, developing and doing a lot of research on as a catalyst for enhancing sense of place, building community pride, and increasing tourism and economic development along the Kennebec River Valley,” Haley told selectmen Tuesday night. “Now, Providence holds monthly lightings that are a massive tourist draw and a huge economic asset to them and actually turned Providence around.”
“Kennebec on Fire” will commission artists to create metal sculptures designed around a fire brazier and install them seasonally at approved sites in the Kennebec River. Organizers want Skowhegan to be the location of the first installation, and they have identified a potential site at the Great Eddy — to be viewed from Coburn Park — that would bring focused attention to two of Skowhegan’s assets — the river and the park.
“WesArts and MSS will collaborate on this project during the first site installation in Skowhegan. Then WesArts, working independently, will continue the project as it grows and moves upriver to other Somerset County municipalities,” according to project details.
WesArts and Main Street Skowhegan have been invited by the Maine Arts Commission to apply for a $75,000 grant to implement the project over three years. Organizers then will have to come up with a one-to-one match for a total project budget of $150,000, Cannon said.
They also are working with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and an artist to further define materials and processes for the project and have inquired about necessary permits. The end goal is to have a trail of fire installations up the Kennebec River in different towns along the way.
The grant application is due Oct. 28.
“Our future intention, once we have all details ironed out, is to ask permission for this public art installation, which will include a public art agreement similar to the Langlais art agreement,” Haley said.
She said the installations will be temporary structures in the river and will be seasonal, mounted in late spring and removed before the ice forms in the fall. The structures in the Skowhegan portion of the river would be below the planned Run of River white water recreation park.
“The design incorporates a fire brazier, and because of the location we picked at Coburn Park that can overlook the river, we’ll do regular lightings so they’ll be nice to look at during the daytime and also during lighting festivals, when you can see the sculptures on fire, enjoy the park and be another economic driver for bringing people in.”
The Kennebec River near the Great Eddy, where organizers are planning “Kennebec on Fire,” a collaborative arts project. (Main Street Skowhegan photo via PPH)