The sculptural installation at Evanston’s Fire Station No. 1, "Aqua Vita," is made of both bronze walkway and red sedum. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

Donna Zarbin-Byrne is the creator of the sculptural installation at Evanston’s Fire Station No. 1 at 1332 Emerson St. The artwork was funded by Evanston’s Percent for Art program when the station was built in 1996. It is titled Aqua Vita, meaning “water of life.”

The medium is bronze, cement and plantings, the theme being fire and water. The artwork consists of several pieces, the largest a tri-part flame in bronze, from which radiate smaller wave shapes that refer to water. A fire hose and large ax lie to the left, a twisted ladder, rope and antique grappling hook to the right, all of bronze.

Aqua Vita, grappling hooks and ladder

The sculpture’s tools incorporate actual tools, vintage parts given to the artist by a Chicago Fire Department. The rope was cast from a mold directly from the Evanston fire station’s own rope. The patinas on the flame are of different colors, much as a painter would use on a canvas. The same verdigris patina on the waves is splashed onto the flame to create movement and to suggest water splashing on fire.

A flowing “walkway” of bronze lies in the center of the planting, into which alchemic and native American symbols for fire and water have been inlaid. The walkway culminates in a poem by 15th century alchemist and theologian Paracelsus:                                       

By God is water blessed
Thirst to quench
Fish to shelter
The earth to cover
Fire to Surrender

The artist writes, “Regarding public art, the most important materials are the site and the meaning of the place for which the work will be created. Then specific materials are selected that best adapt to the formal and conceptual concerns of the installation.”

Aqua Vita artist Donna Zarbin-Byrne tends to plantings included in the artwork. (Photo provided)

Zarbin-Byrne was raised in Rogers Park and Wilmette. Her master’s in fine art is from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Following college and travel, she returned to Evanston, living not far from Fire Station No. 1 for 30 years, and raised her family.

While in Evanston, with her husband, artist Richard Byrne, she co-founded Great Lakes Metal Works & Art Studio, also known as Artisan Restoration International, in Skokie. The company provides custom fabrication and restoration services in metal, wood and stone. The Byrnes travel widely to restore art, but they now live in, and share a studio, in Maui, Hawaii.

Aqua Vita, flame. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

The Evanston installation was designed with berms of red sedum plantings to symbolize fire, but those plants were mistakenly ripped out one year, in a weed-pulling frenzy by the firefighters at Fire Station No. 1 who had been tasked with maintenance. Unrecognized as missing, the plants were finally replaced in 2020 by city Public Works Supervisor Stephen Walker.

Of her involvement in the commission, Zarbin-Byrne says, “I spent a lot of time at the fire station sharing meals and building a bridge from my world to theirs and vice-versa. It was an amazing experience.”

In 2021, the artist was in the area, visited Evanston and cleaned the bronze portions of the sculpture without charge to the city. A few years previously, the Arts Council had chosen not to pay to have the artwork cleaned, even though it had been requested by the Public Art Subcommittee and was stipulated in the artist’s contract.

Maintenance of outdoor works of art can be costly and it can be difficult to find qualified people to do it. It is usually best practice to consult the artist – most public art contracts require such consultation. Recently, the city has pressed art donors to also donate funds to cover future maintenance.

Donna Zarbin-Byrne (Photo provided)

Zarbin-Byrne is generous, however, in her praise of the city, “There was a lot of collaboration between the city of Evanston and the community. The city made in-kind contributions in the pouring of the concrete walkway, delivery and sculpting of the earth berms by John Jaminski from the Parks and Recreation Department.”

“The Evanston Garden Council, Linda Lutz, and the Four Seasons Garden Club of Evanston provided advice on plant selections and in-kind contributions of the plants. Virginia Beatty worked tirelessly on garden advice and coordination,” the artist says.

Then, she adds, “I am committed to the ideal that art does impact the human spirit, activates community and enhances experience.”

And that’s why we have public art.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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