Sc.B., Brown University, 1975; DFA (honorary), Brown University, 2000; DFA (honorary), Rhode Island College, 2000; DHL (honorary), Roger Williams University, 2016; DFA (honorary), Providence College, 2017
Barnaby Evans is an artist, designer, developer, thought leader, and consultant who uses his experience in many fields and media to create original solutions in planning, public art, public space, environmental resiliency, and urban interfaces. Originally trained as a scientist focusing on environment and ecology, Evans creates original artworks and design solutions involving major urban interventions, site-specific sculpture installations, photography, landscape, architectural and design projects, writing, and conceptual works. Evans combines his technical and ecological expertise, awareness of spatial psychology, sensitivity as an artist, and design philosophy to create unique solutions to public art and urban issues.
Evans created WaterFire in Providence, R.I., in 1994 as part of an effort to rebrand and re-establish Providence as a destination. Frustrated by the intense negativity of the local residents about their capital city, Evans designed WaterFire as a city-scale intervention that combines a design approach with aesthetics, land art, installation, site specific work, music, ritual and spectacle.
Q&A with Barnaby Evans regarding his work on Colgate's traditions and rituals
Why did Colgate invite you to campus as an artist in residence?
When President Brian Casey and I spoke in August, he was developing his vision for Colgate and continuing to prepare for the university’s bicentennial. Meanwhile, the march in Charlottesville, Va., had renewed a debate among students over Colgate’s Torchlight Ceremony.
The convergence of events offered the entire university community an opportunity to think more deeply about campus traditions, to reimagine and reaffirm its rituals. As the creator of WaterFire and various other works of public art that engage communities in civic ritual, I have contributed to these kinds of conversations before and was intrigued by the opportunity to work in this particular university environment.
What process have you been following since you arrived at Colgate?
My first visit to campus began on a Colgate Day: last October 13. Over two days, I had more than 16 meetings — with faculty, staff, students, members of the university’s Bicentennial Committee, and the Alumni Council. I returned for additional forums, meetings, and classroom visits in November, December, and January.
While on campus, I witnessed a number of university events such as Dancefest, the “Welcome Home” event for Provost and Dean of the Faculty Tracey Hucks ’87, MA’90, and the service and reception celebrating the life of Bruce Selleck ’71.
Meanwhile, I have been studying Colgate history and traditions, as well as their wider context, to gain a better understanding of the history, intention, evolution, and concerns regarding the Torchlight Ceremony. I have also been researching the larger symbolic meanings behind the Colgate seal, Torchlight, torches, and torch processions in the United States and the rest of the world.
What have you learned about the origins of Torchlight?
In 1929, the Alumni Corporation, under the leadership of Frank Williams, Class of 1895, conducted a comprehensive survey of Colgate’s commencement program. A subcommittee researched other universities’ commencement programs and sent representatives to attend those events. Their work informed the creation of a new Colgate program for 1930 — to recognize the achievements of the graduating class, unify its members, and draw alumni back to campus for a reunion.
Williams died suddenly in February 1930, so he never saw the ceremony he helped to design. Because of his passing — and the untimely deaths of three members of the Class of 1930 — Torchlight was, in part, a memorial. The local paper of the day reported that it was visually stunning and that, through a program of singing and oratory, it realized Williams’s hopes.
From talking with members of the campus community, what have you learned about their thoughts on Torchlight?
Opinions vary among students, faculty, and staff. Some want to preserve Torchlight as it is, some would change it, others feel it is important to end it. Many don’t wish to enter the debate because they feel it has become too politicized.
Students agree that Torchlight’s history, meaning, and intention are not understood or presented to the seniors and that the event has drifted over the years from its original solemnity and grandeur into a party-like event with too much drinking that does little to commemorate, honor, or dignify the work they have done for the past four years.
Last year, President Casey hosted a festive, elegant reception on Whitnall Field for graduates and their families. Having one event where everyone could gather was a much-appreciated addition. The Class of 2017 also had the option of choosing between carrying a torch or carrying a candle, and that opportunity was well-received.
Why are there such different reactions to Torchlight?
For graduating seniors, Torchlight is an emotionally loaded ceremony, marking the passage from four years of study to an entirely new life. It combines the pride of accomplishment with the unknown of facing the next chapter in life — the real emotional challenges of change and leaving behind many friends. Alumni remember a series of Torchlight experiences that remind them of a younger time in their lives.
While some see the ceremony as a beautiful rite of passage and an important link to the Colgate seal and to past traditions, others are troubled by echoes of the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and the recent march in Charlottesville. If one sees Torchlight as reminiscent of organized hate, one can certainly understand reactions of anger, fear, and offense. Students feel obligated to express their strong opposition to instances of hatred, and this contributes to the concerns about Torchlight.
What have you learned through your research off campus?
Cultures on every continent have used fire and torches for tools, celebrations, rallies, and gatherings. Fire has an ancient and potent power; electric light is, after all, a fairly recent development. The torch is also a ubiquitous symbol of knowledge, freedom, divine inspiration, and civil rights. But fire is a natural phenomenon, and its context gives it meaning. Fire’s power can bring light and warmth, or it can destroy. So, notwithstanding all the positive uses of torches, it is absolutely true that some hate groups have also used fire for the purposes of fear and intimidation. (Visit colgate.edu/torchlight for more information.)
Torchlight, however, is a pageant derived from the Colgate seal, depicting the torch of knowledge, with no past or present connection to hate groups. The unfortunate irony is that a celebration originally created to build unity and an evocative connection to the university’s founding principles is now causing discord and disagreement.
Students concerned about a rising tide of racism across the country may be able to embrace the traditional meaning of a torch as a symbol of the enlightenment, knowledge, liberty, and freedom. Alumni who embrace the Torchlight tradition may be able to understand that, for people without context or knowledge, the sight of torch processions on campus might cause fear and anger, particularly given the national dialogue.
How do alumni involve themselves in this process? I would like to hear from as many alumni as possible in the weeks and months ahead. Share your thoughts with me via e-mail at email@example.com. The Alumni Council Torchlight Working Group also welcomes thoughts and recollections, and we will review comments sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. I do not come to this project with any pre-formed answers, nor am I here to solve the problem. I am here to facilitate a communitywide conversation and offer insights from my years as an artist. I look forward to continuing the dialogue with you.
It is my hope that these discussions will result in an enriched set of commencement rituals that will properly honor both the great accomplishments of the graduating senior class as well as the distinction of the Colgate commitment to excellence.
Temple to Milk, 1989
Protecting the Flag, 1990
Execution Coda, with artist Irene Lawrence, 1993
Plumb Line, 1994
Solstice Courtyard, 1997
Rikyū’s Second Dream (Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art), 1999
613 Lengths of Bamboo (Brattleboro Museum of Art), 2001
Heart of Glass (Museum of Glass and Contemporary Art, Tacoma, Wash.), 2001
Moving Water (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston), 2001
Never Use a Red Pen, 2008.
1000 Ships, a meditation on the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, with Lyra Monteiro and Andrew Losowsky (Museum on Site, WaterFire), 2008
Starry, Starry Night, 2009
Bridge of Stars, 2010