Photograph by Erin Cuddigan

Each WaterFire is a slightly different experience according to one’s mood, companions, the weather, the music, and the size of the crowd. This complex piece is rich in layers of meaning and symbolism, leading to multiple readings about the artwork itself, as well as about nature within the urban environment. It may be understood and enjoyed as simply a series of fires floating over the water with music playing or with reference to the strong tensions created by the two opposing forces of water and fire in close juxtaposition. The vulnerability of the fires poised just above the water, combined with the ephemeral smoke, sparks, and music rising in the air, is counterbalanced by the heavy stone walls of the river and the surging crowds promenading.

The magic of WaterFire is all-encompassing. This site-specific work of art has so captured all of our senses that it lures one to come to see it, feel it, smell it, and hear it again and again. It is impossible to just look at this art piece without becoming a participant in it. The line of fires burning on the water curves as the river curves, leading the viewer onwards. Dancing firelight and shadows engage and heighten the experience by emphasizing the contrast between the dark water’s surface and the dramatically lit buildings nearby. The smoke and crackling of the fires evoke a fascination with the danger of fires from childhood memories as well as the comfort of flames on a hearth. Familiar and exotic sounds float upwards and reverberate, achieving a haunting intensity not found elsewhere. It is this rich blend that draws us back repeatedly.

– Colgate & Lalla Searle

Colgate & Lalla Searle are landscape architects based in Rhode Island. his essay was originally written for Reflections on WaterFire a series of stories and essays written by local thought leaders to mark the 100th lighting of WaterFire on September 1, 2001.