Issue: Summer 2007

Written by: Doug Norris

For centuries, it was the water that attracted people to Wickford, a village of tidy 18th-century homes and upscale shops tucked among coves, streams and a wide harbor. From the Narragansett Indians and Colonial settlers who once fished here to the modern-day recreationalists embarking on moonlight paddling tours from the Kayak Centre or spotting seals from the deck of the Brandaris, Wickford lives each day in rhythm with the sea.  

Located just a half-hour's drive from Newport, the village was once the site of a 17th-century trading post established by Roger Williams and eventually purchased by Richard Smith. Smith's Castle, the saltbox plantation house on Cocumscussoc Cove, now attracts tourists to its restored grounds, offering a living chronicle to New England's maritime and Colonial heritage. 

While Narragansett Bay and a jigsaw of side streets displaying colorful clapboard Colonials paints the daily picture of Wickford and a bustling center of gourmet cafes, boutique shops and galleries, the village is known beyond Rhode Island for a little party it throws every year on the second weekend in July, when it turns into a thriving tent city.  

The Wickford Art Festival is the crown jewel in the village's crowded events calendar.  This year, 246 artists will converge on downtown streets, closed to vehicular traffic and lined in identical canopied white tents. Brown, West Main and Main Streets form the strand. The green walkway to the Old Narragansett Church and the side streets of Elam, Spink and Franklin are also taken over. Artists through the years have discovered their favorite spots. 

I overlook that little Academy Cove area, says Kelly Rafferty, a photographer from Newport, who this year will be attending her 11th festival. It's a good life to be under a tree watching the whole world pass by, even if it means spraying yourself Wickford, Rhode Island Michael Derr constantly with Deep Woods Off and swatting those greenheaded horse flies. You can see all the wildlife, rabbits darting out of the reeds, house cats hunting mice in the grass. The kids with lemonade at their makeshift stands. And the dogs. It's like living in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Wickford's personality hasn't changed much over the years. It is still a place where people come to watch the swans float under the bridge. Where someone can sail in on an old Dutch canal boat and make a living as an unofficial town mascot while moored at the Town Dock. Where, on foggy days, sailors still navigate to the sounds of church bells and barking dogs.  

For Francie Christophersen, co-chair of the Wickford Art Festival, the spirit of the centuries-old village is what makes the event a success. Over the years the locals have developed relationships with the artists, she says. They'll invite them in for tea, let them use their bathrooms.

That is no small gesture on a weekend that has drawn up to 80,000 people to Wickford. The roots of the festival go back to a sidewalk show in 1961 at Robert MacMeehan's Little Gallery on Franklin Street. Within two decades, more than 400 artists jostled elbows on the sidewalks of Wickford. Festival organizers tightened the guidelines, inviting fine artists only, no crafts, and insisting that every artist be rejuried every three years. Wickford is now ranked in the top 100 art festivals in the country and in the top 6 in the northeast.  

Every year, everyone's always worried about the weather, says Rafferty. But here's the thing: Bad weather means good business.  Nobody's tanning or going to the beach. On my first-ever day at the festival, tropical storm Bertha hit just a couple of years after Hurricane Bob. We decided to set up anyway. It started to pour. But people were lined up and we were selling art even as the police came through and told us we had to evacuate.