Students Revel in Absurdity of Annual FireFish Festival


Photo by Lanie Cheatham

The FireFish sculpture goes up in flames.

The annual Lorain FireFish Festival took place in Downtown Lorain last Saturday. The festival is a lively celebration of art, culture, and community that culminates in the ceremonial burning of a giant fish sculpture. Programming included glassblowing demonstrations, a New Orleans-style jazz band, stilt walkers, puppeteers from the eerie-yet-magical Bread and Puppet Theater, and a performance from Oberlin’s own steelpan band, OSteel. Several students attended the festival.

The FireFish Festival has been a Lorain tradition since 2015, but this was the first time that OSteel was included in the event. College fourth-year Charlotte Connamacher is the current administrative director of OSteel and has been involved with the group since taking the steelpan ExCo during her first year at Oberlin. According to Connamacher, OSteel was first approached about participating in the FireFish Festival after performing in Oberlin’s Big Parade this past spring. 

At Big Parade, Joan Perch, executive director of the Lorain-based non-profit FireFish Arts, sported a colorful butterfly costume when she approached the band to compliment the musicianship of the pan players. She then pitched her own event: another parade, but this one with a whimsical procession and a dramatic display of fire and fireworks. That description alone was enough to get OSteel on board.

With the FireFish Festival scheduled to take place less than a month into the school year, OSteel didn’t have long to prepare for the performance, but they were able to pull together an exciting concert nonetheless. The quality of the show was a testament to the dedication of the band.

OSteel’s main point person for involvement in the festival was multimedia artist and FireFish Festival Creative Director Daniel McNamara, who directs the parade and “burning pageant” and  has built the giant fish multiple times in past years. According to Connamacher, McNamara described the festival as a big buildup to a moment of intentional chaos — chaos that facilitates creativity. This concept of “intentional chaos” took the form of multiple musical groups all playing at once on closely-situated stages during the hours leading up to the burning of the fish.

“The idea behind the burning fish was that you can create art, and you can destroy art, but the creative energy involved in the process can’t be destroyed,” Connamacher said.                                                                    “It can’t be dampened.”

The frenetic, artistic energy of the all-day event made a lasting impression on attendees. College Second-year Danny Folger Walls, a member of OSteel, traveled to the festival to perform. They described the whole experience as “unexpected.”

“I didn’t imagine there were events like this so close to Oberlin,” Folger Walls said. “It was a different side of Ohio than I’d seen before. There was such a diversity of cultural representation and food and ages and … everything. Plus, the huge burning fish part was so dramatic. I felt like I was in the danger zone right next to it while it was spitting fire. Luckily, I made it back in one piece.”

College third-years Lanie Cheatham and Aidan Sweney heard about FireFish when a fellow student announced OSteel’s scheduled performance during a meal at Third World Co-op, and they were so intrigued by the idea of the fish-burning pageant that they wrangled a group of friends into spending the whole day at the festival. 

“A lot of the ‘scales’ had things painted on them like ‘hate,’ ‘racism,’ ‘discrimination,’ ‘police brutality,’ ‘homophobia,’” Cheatham said. “The idea was that, with the burning of the fish, you’re also purging all of those painful things.”

Sweney admitted that, at first, he expected the event to be barbecue-esque. 

“Turns out, the fish was made of paper,” Sweney said. “That’s probably for the best, though. I think a real fish would’ve smelled bad.”

According to Cheatham and Sweney, the festival was fun and unusual — in spite of the lack of giant, barbecued seafood — and it was a great opportunity for Oberlin students to make connections with creatively-minded people across the greater Lorain county. 

“It was a very exciting moment, watching the puppeteering and listening to the music and seeing it all come together,” Connamacher said. “[OSteel] definitely made some wonderful connections. Daniel [McNamara] and Joan [Perch] were so gracious with their time and so excited for us to be involved. I really do feel more connected to the area now. There’s a lot more creative stuff going on than I was initially aware of. You just have to look closely and make an effort to meet interesting people in order to find out about it. Overall, it was a hectic experience, but it was so fulfilling. I would love to go back again next year.”