Photograph by Erin Cuddigan

On First Night, New Years Eve, December 31, 1994, my son, wife and I went to see an art installation called First Fire in WaterPlace Park. It sounded interesting, although it was cold and windy, and there were 4 fires in the circles and some more heading down towards RISD, and it was kinda cool. But it was really cold and windy, so after 5 minutes or so, we headed up to the State House to see some performance inside.

18 months later, we went a couple nights to see the installation of Second Fire, and I bought the T-shirt. I kept going back all summer. In the summer of 1997, I came up to Barnaby during one of the early WaterFires of the season. I asked him if he needed any help for future WaterFires. He said yes, took my number, and said he would call me for the next Fire. At the next Fire, I came up to Barnaby during the evening, and I asked him if he needed any help for future WaterFires. He said yes, took my number, and said he would call me for the next Fire. At the next Fire, I came up to Barnaby during the evening, and I asked him if he needed any help for future WaterFires. He said yes, and introduced me to Paula Davidson, the first Volunteer Coordinator, and she said she would call me for the next Fire. I volunteered at the next Fire, and haven’t left yet.

Over the years, I’ve learned to drive a boat, build fires, lead crews, coach others to drive boats, make motions at Board meetings, ask for money, and travel the world setting fires. I’ve met literally hundreds of volunteers, gotten a Coast Guard Master’s License, and become a tour guide for Providence River Boat. Because of WaterFire, I’m part of a tribe of volunteers which stretches across the world, and I’m a member of the Apollo Maennerchor in Sharon, PA (it’s a private club: I don’t subject anyone to my singing). I’ve lit fires in Sharon, Columbus, Kansas City, Singapore and Rome. In the beginning, volunteers were contacted by phone, then by Email, and now we sign up online. The way we lit the fires has evolved from a blow torch on the kindling to a torch touching a fuse. We have gone from 3 boats to a fleet of about a dozen boats, from working in Barnaby’s studio to our own building, from a crew of all volunteers to a professional staff. What remains the same is the pleasure of looking at all the people on the banks of the river, their faces serene as their cares go up in smoke. What also remains the same is making friends with all my fellow volunteers, and the hardest working staff in show business.

Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors sat around a fire as the harvest was in, and told stories and sang songs, and that is where civilization began. We breathe in air, and the air combines with the food we’ve eaten in afire in our cells, and we breathe out water (and CO2). WaterFire reflects who we are, and where we’ve come from, and I’m proud to have been a part of it for many years. I plan to stick around until John Mongelli and Ihor Slabicky finally quit, so I can be the longest volunteer.

– Peter Van Erp

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