Joan Perch Interview
Joan Perch Interview

Joan Perch Interview

Joan Perch, Artistic Director & Founder of FireFish Arts

What inspired the start FireFish Arts?

Joan Perch, Artistic Director & Founder of FireFish Arts shares how her work has made an impact on the arts in Lorain.

The journey of FireFish Arts began with a community-centered project that I had the privilege to lead at Lorain County Community College. The initiative, titled Follow the Fish Art and Adventure Trails, was inspired by similar projects in other cities where local landmarks are marked with animal sculptures painted by local artists. For Lorain, the choice of a fish as our emblem was symbolic, celebrating our connection to the freshwater treasures of the Black River and Lake Erie.

The pivotal moment was the decision to craft our fish sculptures locally. This idea connected so deeply with Lorain’s rich manufacturing heritage, aligning with the community’s identity and skills. The success of that project; watching local students and artists work together, spark ideas, and take action, is what inspired me FireFish Arts.

The project’s success was not just in the sculptures themselves but truly in the collaborative spirit it fostered students and artists coming together, exchanging ideas, and taking collective action. That inspired the FireFish Festival, and all we continued to learn and still do today.

Tyshaunn Gilbert was a Lorain High School student and an early participant in our very first FireFish Festival, helping to design and build that first FireFish with Danny McNamara, a tradition that continues today. He best captured what we all learned during that amazing year:

“I learned that you can do anything that you put your mind to, even when you don’t know where to start. I learned that it does not take too much to bring a whole city or a community together, all you need is a plan and support.  I feel that if one FireFish and a lot of art and people brought Lorain together for a day that we should have more events in the future for this city to show that it is no longer dead but on the up and up. I think that the people involved in this FireFish program are lucky because they can say that they are making a change.”

How has FireFish Arts evolved?

FireFish Arts can be traced back to our flagship event, the FireFish Festival, our shining star of cultural celebration since its launch in 2015. Before 2021, the festival was the primary vehicle for our mission, turning downtown Lorain into a vibrant and alive stage for creativity. This annual, free event transforms our urban downtown into a dynamic center of artistic expression, where the power and magic of art are real and accessible to all.

That theme of transformation informs all we do, the belief that the arts have the power to transform youth, communities, shared civic spaces, and economies. Our focus is to reach everyone, especially those who are under-resourced and might not have access otherwise to arts and cultural experiences like FireFish. Artistic excellence and cutting-edge creativity are important, as is hosting a great Festival, but this organization is about showing the people of Lorain what THEY can do. We do this by highlighting what Lorain has to offer, rather than parachuting artists in from elsewhere.

We take this transformational, fluid stance because it works. When the people of Lorain stand in front of a mirror (experiencing art made by their neighbors) they see the transformational power they also have and put it to work for the better. When the festival began, Lorain was a barren downtown. The temporary activation of FireFish has sparked investment through more businesses and streetscaping plans, and our temporary placemaking initiatives have turned barren alleys into permanent installations and event sites.

How is FireFish Arts’ mission applied year-round?

Our commitment to nurturing the arts and fostering leadership is part of our exciting new Youth SPARKS! arts programs. These initiatives offer out-of-school enrichment and creative opportunities for the youth of Lorain to explore their artistic talents and develop lifetime leadership and 21st-century workforce skills. They explore the world around them, the cosmos, and their dreams for the future. That includes opportunities for entrepreneurship as developing leadership and 21st-century workforce skills including creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Our Fire It Up! Friday Alley Parties—a series of arts and performance events that enliven the city each month during the summer, keep growing, and are an important part of our work. This summer we look to highlight not only the great talent here in Lorain and Lorain County but also non-profit partners and collaborators in the arts.  In addition to music, poetry, and art, you can expect to see some performances by local theater groups like Mad Factory, and even ballet by North Pointe Ballet. These gatherings are not just celebrations of creativity but also serve as a testament to our valued partnerships with various non-profit agencies and the City of Lorain leadership.

Creative placemaking is a cornerstone of our year-round mission. Projects like The Alley Project: Broadway’s Back Door, the Marie Bonnaminio Butterfly Garden Sculptures, and numerous mural projects, transform public spaces into hubs of cultural expression and community pride. These initiatives not only beautify the city but also create a sense of belonging and identity among its residents.

With a whole host of community partners, we collaborate on impactful projects such as the South Lorain CHOICES neighborhood initiative, which aims to revitalize a large neighborhood in the South Lorain community. We have partnered with Lorain Active Transportation to bring the We Walk Together – Asphalt Art Contest to life, and we are currently working on grant-funded projects to create a Main Street Lorain mural and arts/cultural city markers in collaboration with the Lorain Historical Society.

What strategies are used in FireFish Arts work?

One tactic that we took in the goal toward activating space in downtown Lorain was the creative placemaking/community art initiative called The Alley Project: Broadway’s Back Door, which continues to grow. This project drew from previous successful pop-up events and involves a permanent art alley between 5th and 6th Street in downtown Lorain. The Alley hosts a mural by local artist Bob Peck with AR/VR elements created in collaboration with students at Lorain County Community College and several temporary murals.

What used to be an empty alley is now home to Fire It Up! Block Parties, which serve as the “after party” to Main Street Lorain’s First Friday events. These events feature fire-themed performances, visual art and music, live artmaking, and pop-up markets.

The Rev. Mary Carson past Rector at Church of the Redeemer in downtown Lorain succinctly shared how this tactic worked:

“I have gotten to know Greg Gallovan through the community meal offered at our church. He has had various health challenges, including a tracheostomy and recently a broken foot. As he was telling me about these, Great Lakes Opera began singing ‘I Could Have Danced All Night.’ The next thing I knew, Greg put down his foot and cane and held out his arms to dance. Even with a boot on his foot, his grace as a dancer enabled me to have a few magical moments, thinking I could dance all night.

As we danced, I also thought about how meeting one another in that transformed alley epitomized the potential of an arts festival like FireFish. The event brought together a very disparate group of people: the residents living on the margins of society in downtown Lorain were able to enjoy the same artistic performances as those who drove from affluent Cleveland suburbs.” 

What is special about FireFish Arts?

We consider our organization a transformational one; we respond to and uplift the assets of our community toward the vision of a vibrant, creative, and inclusive Lorain. This means that the organization is ever-changing to respond to the needs and desires of the community and that the community is leading it and us.

FireFish came not from my internal desire to burn a fish or because Candice likes to lead a parade (she does!), but from hundreds of small and large ideas that inspired each other, ideas the community and artists had to make their place better. What started as a single idea, to fabricate fish sculptures ourselves rather than through manufacture (think: CowParade, painted public art) organically transformed into an educational fab-lab project, then a parade, a festival, youth learning 21st-century skills, and a revitalizing, activated downtown. FireFish authentically belongs to the people of Lorain, from the bottom up.

What are some highlights of FireFish for you personally and professionally?

To me, this organization is a culmination of every opportunity I have had so far- and the opportunities of everyone involved. I hope that I have learned to lead by listening, the wisdom to change when new needs or interests arise, and I truly appreciate the countless relationships that I’ve built over decades – and continue to build with this project. Those have been critical to the success of FireFish. I have built my career around the core belief in trusting and respecting artists, giving them space to explore, and paying them for their work. That investment is paying off now. I feel so lucky to be exactly where I want to be, at this point in my life.

A few other bits of advice, things that I hope I have learned:

  • The importance of knowing and respecting the power of youth and age. I can “be 10” when I play with art, or a wise sage at times. Every age is powerful, and we need to include everyone in FireFish.
  • Surround yourself with creative doers and let them run free. FireFish is what happens when you put artists in a room and tell them you will support their ideas, which are always better than mine. The work I do is less curating and more uplifting.
  • Take it slow and keep the workload manageable so that you can enjoy what you are doing.
  • To be effective you must learn true collaboration, a skill that is often touted, but not often truly practiced. True collaboration partnership means we have both given 110%, trust and lean in to help when the time comes. FireFish is a labor of love that would not exist if I had not called in old favors from those, I built strong foundations with and all the new ones that keep growing.
  • Every single person involved in this effort is a key part of the fabric of FireFish; we all have valuable and important skills that make us successful.