Lorain’s FireFish Spectacle Signals Restoration


Photo by Julia Peterson

The community of Lorain gathered for the FireFish festival Saturday, a day-long celebration meant to expand the city’s art scene and jumpstart the local economy. The main event involved marching a giant papier-mâché fish to the river and setting it ablaze.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

A giant fish paraded through the center of town, floated down the river and set on fire barely scratches the surface of the display at the second annual FireFish festival, which took place last Saturday. The city of Lorain’s downtown and boardwalk areas were transformed into thoroughfares of public art, with almost every storefront, alley and doorway becoming a display or performance space. The festival lasted from early afternoon until well after dark, ending despite the rain with the much-anticipated burning of the fish under a full moon.

FireFish is part of the city of Lorain’s ongoing efforts to revitalize the downtown area, highlight the work of local artists and make the city a center for arts in the region. FireFish community arts liaison Joan Perch spoke about how abandoned spaces in Lorain were being highlighted during the festival. “FireFish is about transformation…creating a festival that really shows what is possible in places that might not think have potential,” Perch said. “Just to the left of us there’s an abandoned parking garage, but [during FireFish] that’s ‘Elegant Decay’ and there’s a performance going on there, and on staircases behind us.”

The scope of the transformation was impressive. Artists came from all over the area to present at FireFish, including many groups from Oberlin College and Conservatory, as well as the town. There was 3-D printing and stand-up comedy. There were aerialists and break dancers and spoken word poets. The Oberlin Children’s Shakespeare Youth Theater presented short scenes from Hamlet and a Conservatory jazz band performed on the main stage. Assistant Professor of Dance Alysia Ramos directed a dance improvisation ensemble.

“The director of FireFish contacted us in the spring and asked us to be part of [the festival] in some way,” Ramos said. “We really wanted to be part of it because they’re trying to do some good work in Lorain, to draw people back to Lorain. It’s a nice mission, a nice idea, and I wanted to support that community, which has really suffered, and which [Levin] sees as an opportunity for arts spaces.”

A recent estimate published by Cleveland’s NewsNet5 calculated that 60 percent of the buildings in Lorain’s downtown sit empty — but not during FireFish. Every available space is given an exhibition or performative purpose, symbolizing some of the hopes for what the town can be, and in some cases memorializing what it has been.

Ki Rodriguez, one of the artists at this year’s festival, created a sound installation titled 81/46 in a building previously used as a storage space.

Having grown up in Lorain, Rodriguez was inspired to create this piece by the sounds of the nearby steel mill, which closed this past summer. “In a weird come-full-circle series of events, I found this piece being about home, from the soundscapes to the physical production [and] fabrication of steel components,” he wrote in an email to the Review. “I feel that showing in Lorain is the most important juncture of the 81/46 journey. Our industry is gone. … The downtown area has been desolate since I can remember. It breaks my heart that many historic buildings in such a prime location are left to waste.”

Local artists weren’t the only ones to contribute to the festival. FireFish director James Levin highlighted the cooperation he received from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, the county commissioner and members of Lorain’s struggling business community leading up to the event.

“There’s something about … the people here,” he said. “And the fact that I could go up to King Fishery … out of nowhere and say ‘Hey, you don’t know me, and I’m about to ask you this … favor. I want you to hook your trawler onto this very heavy barge made out of steel drums and, in the middle of the night, drag it back to the middle of the Black River so that we can burn this thing on it with fireworks.’ And without hesitation, [they] said ‘Oh, yeah.’”

The contributions from community members perfectly illustrate not only a shared interest in Lorain’s future, but also how they perceive art as a vital piece of that future. Lorain County Community College President Marcia Ballinger outlined some of her hopes for what the festival can do for the community.

“We really see FireFish as being an economic stimulant to the city of Lorain,” she said. “I firmly believe that cultural arts is a driver for the economy, … and so activating the city through performing arts and visual arts and creative arts, I think really shows hope for the future here.”

The festival’s titular fish is itself a symbol of healing for the city, representing the health of the waterway so integral to Lorain’s history.

“What can represent fresh water more than a fish?” Lavin said. “Something eternal, something that represents an important value of any port city, something that’s iconic and has a surreal quality — I think a fish presents itself in so many different ways. It’s kind of like the Wallace Stevens poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ — there’s eleventeen ways of looking at a fish.”

Because Saturday afternoon was rainy, fewer people turned out than anticipated. Despite the fact that it quite literally on the parade rained, the shows went on. When there was concern that the sodden fish might not catch fire, the parade simply moved under a bridge and kept dancing. People clustered around the indoor installations and continued to take in the pop-up shops and exhibits that had been set up all along the covered boardwalk.

“The FireFish festival demonstrates the enormous potential that exists for making the arts an integral part of Lorain’s economic future,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur wrote in an email to the Review. “Even in the driving rain, people flocked to the Black River’s banks to experience the energy behind FireFish. The enthusiasm, the community spirit — it’s all so inspiring.”

At 9 p.m., the crowd gathered on the banks of the Black River to watch the burning of the fish. The cloud cover was thick and gray, threatening to turn a cold drizzle into another full-fledged downpour. The outline of the blue fish was illuminated by a spotlight shining down on the river. Higher up on the grassy banks, dancers performed with flaming props as the steady drum chorus echoed the anticipation in the air.

Boats came and went along the small stretch of river. Someone shot firework sparks at the fish, then motored away. Kayaks circled the floating figure. The fish remained stubbornly unburned as the drumming continued, until at long last it caught fire.

“The rain stopped and the full moon broke through the sky,” the FireFish festival wrote in a press release. “Torches and pyrotechnics culminated in a herculean effort that resulted in a blaze of fire that lit the FireFish — an inspired lighting. … [This] fire will hopefully engage and inspire the transformation of the once great city of Lorain into a new era of art and creativity.”