FireFish Arts
History

History

History

Launched by FireFish Arts in 2015, the FireFish Festival was presented to the public as an opportunity to “re-imagine Lorain as it becomes a stage for a scorching array of art, dance, music, and fire.” The organization was founded by Joan Perch as a continuation of the first Lorain County public art campaign, Follow the Fish Art, and Adventure Trails. Designed by founding Artistic Director James Levin to celebrate the region’s freshwater link to Lake Erie and the Black River and its storied industrial heritage, that first event drew more than 10,000 visitors to a barren downtown, showcasing art, dance, and theater, culminating in dramatic pyrotechnics display and the burning of the first FireFish.

Until 2021, the organization’s mission had been achieved primarily via the now much-anticipated programming of the FireFish Festival and its iconic fiery finale. During the annual FREE FireFish Festival, downtown Lorain itself becomes an interactive, live artwork —something magical, accessible, and positive for the people of Lorain. Transforming downtown into an arts mecca of art installations, pop-up art galleries, music, and performance across genres, cultures, and ages, it has showcased the very best national, regional, and local community art (visual, performance, music).  The highlight of the Festival is its fiery finale: a procession and celebration of performers, community artists, and community youth that leads to the spectacle performance – the ceremonial burning of “The Fish” – and fireworks.

An important early goal of the first FireFish Festival was to enliven the desolate downtown Lorain with the arts and artists, demonstrating the potential of the downtown district and the power of the arts to make a difference. The festival also introduced the concept of “creative placemaking” in Lorain, a practice known as an especially effective urban re-development tool in post-industrial rust-belt cities and towns. It was also in that first FireFish Festival that at-risk community youth were engaged in the FireFish Festival,  designing and building the very first FireFish with expert artist Daniel McNamara as part of a paid arts internship and workforce development initiative.

In the past ten years, the city has evolved from an almost barren corridor with many empty storefronts to one that is now coming alive with small businesses, eateries/bars, and creative and arts-based entrepreneurs, supported by innovative public and private partnerships. Adapting the festival to meet new community needs, engaging artists living and working in downtown Lorain, and strategically building the youth component and year-round programming to include more community members and groups have all been identified by the Board of Directors staff, artists, and community members as mission-driven and appropriate responses to this ever-changing environment.

While the annual FireFish Festival did not take place in September 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it returned in 2021 as “A Festival Re-Imagined” that provided programming spanning four weekends (August 29 – September 18, 2021). The reimagined FireFish Festival offered temporary public art installations that included two community murals, one in an artist-designed community garden, which supported the public artwork.

That year, youth from the ACES program helped to build the much larger FireFish, built on site along the Black River, providing an opportunity for the community and visitors to watch, visit, and see the fish being built. It also included outstanding arts experiences in unusual spaces, including a cabaret in the basement of an old bank building by two amazing professional musicians from Lorain reunited for this experience, Jaclyn Bradley, and Melissa Driscoll.

FireFish Arts also launched a new focus on year-round community arts-based programming in 2021. Festival and year-round community arts programming is now created and facilitated by the new FireFish Arts Artist Community Board. The FireFish Community Artist Board itself is comprised of a diverse group of arts professionals living and working in downtown Lorain. These artists have invested in their community, and now are energized by the opportunity to come together to work for creative change in their neighborhood.

As the organization continues to grow, FireFish has also been called upon to provide critical arts leadership in Lorain in strategic ways. The organization partnered with the new Main Street Lorain organization in 2021, incorporating “Fire It Up! programming at each of the monthly summer downtown block parties that included artists, music, and fire performers. Importantly, the creation and implementation of the year-round arts-based programming supports local artists, and professional artists (across genres including performance) and strengthens arts programming with youth, positioning FireFish as true arts leaders and advocates in the community. In 2022, this evolved into a new creative placemaking/community art initiative called “The Alley Project: Broadway’s Back Door” which continues to grow.

Also in 2022, an expanded FireFish Finale Community Parade, youth and community art making took place from July 1, 2022, through the FireFish Festival on September 17th and included workshops where community groups create large-scale puppets and other artworks to be paraded in the FireFish Finale Community Parade and Celebration. Carefully planned as a symbolically rich ritual, parade, and mass performance of transformation, it culminated in the phoenix-like “burning of the FireFish” – created by youth, young adults, and a broad range of community members and groups – alongside professional artists and performers.

2022/2023 brought new community placemaking initiatives: summer “Fire It Up! programming, youth arts programs, and “The Alley Project: Broadway’s Back Door,” an ongoing community public art project. A successful “lantern parade” was added to the finale, as was the new metal “Illuminator” FireFish “skeleton,” designed to create an eco-friendlier “burn” of the FireFish. In 2024, all those initiatives continue to grow and develop in exciting new ways.