Performing and visual arts will come to life in a free, first-of-its-kind festival set against the backdrop of Bellingham’s waterfront shortly after the sun sets Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 18–20.
Featured artists will gather from 5–8 p.m. at 1145 Granary Ave. to share their stories, music and works around three large, ornate fire pits made of salvaged and reclaimed metal.
Called Fire & Story, this all-ages event presented by Bellingham-based Paper Whale will be a celebration of “folk, light and lore.”
Paper Whale has done various projects in Bellingham, all with the common goal of using creativity to evoke a sense of community and shared value within the city.
But the waterfront is where Paper Whale got its start, Director Nick Hartrich said — hence the “paper” in the organization’s name, which pays homage to the former Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper mill.
The upcoming Fire & Story will include more than 30 performances from “poets, authors, performance artists, Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribal members, cirque, fire dancing, comedy, live blacksmithing, glass sculpting, puppets, acoustic musicians and so much more,” according to the event’s website.
The art of storytelling
Jane Wong, editor-in-chief of literary journal The Bellingham Review, will be emceeing the event. She is also an associate professor of creative writing and literature at Western Washington University, as well as a poet and nonfiction writer.
Wong will feature three award-winning poets and former Bellingham Review contributors: Troy Osaki, Michelle Penaloza and Shelby Handler.
“Especially in a time of so much grief, poetry feels necessary as a way to say the unsayable,” Wong said.
Swil Kanim, Lummi Nation keynote speaker, will be sharing special stories, as well as violin music, if weather permits. Going forward, Kanim will be working with the Whatcom Museum to “heal some intergenerational wounds” through an “invite mic”-style conversation, where both Kanim and collaborators are featured.
Other performers include musician and composer Benjamin Hunter, Nooksack Tribal storytellers Skwetslátse’emót and Skwetslátse’elhót/Si’li’xw’tunawt, comedian Deanna Fleysher, Orcas Dance Collective, the song collective Earth Practice and many more. For a full roster of storytellers, visit paper-whale.com.
Metal and fire collide
In addition to live performances, artistic metalwork is a key part of the festival because of how it contrasts with firelight to create ambiance.
Metalworker Dave Kitts is the creator of a piece entitled “Virgil,” which will be displayed at Fire & Story. Its name pays homage to the ancient Roman poet who took inspiration from Homer to write epic poems. The piece has 11 windows, rotates and is about 9 feet across and 5 feet tall.
Kitts initially found interest in mechanics and fabrication through his father, who “wrote books that were used in colleges before anybody even owned a computer.” Kitts then became inspired to make fire-centered creations by attending the Burning Man festival, which led him to begin making his own artistic metalwork. He now works as an architectural fabrication specialist, doing city projects for Bellingham and surrounding areas.
Metalworker Andy Phillips will be showcasing a fire pit he created with sculptural aspects including “four columns that support an arched dome over the fire pit” with a “lion’s mane jellyfish sculpture that will be suspended over the middle.” The fire will be around the structure’s perimeter, which is 14 feet tall by 8 feet wide.
“The greatest joy I get from the work I do is enabling people to gather together in a place that feels unique and inspiring, where they can enhance their connection together,” Phillips said.
Paper Whale partners with city
Paper Whale will be partnering with the City of Bellingham in 2024, working with Mayor Kim Lund on a “strategy that can benefit all residents by creating a deeper connection with our core neighborhood, downtown,” Hartrich said.
Hartrich hopes to also work with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership in “creatively addressing how the community gathers in public spaces.”
Previous Paper Whale events include art workshops and artist talks to brainstorm art installations for the Bellingham Waterfront. Last summer, the organization hosted its first festival on the waterfront, Noisy Waters Mural Festival, a competition that featured muralists from around the U.S. and Canada and highlighted Indigenous art.