Water Marks, the Water Bench

Title:  Water Marks

Site:  Gateway Park at Navy Pier, Chicago

Artists: Olivia Gude, Kiela Smith, Cynthia Weiss, Mirtes Zwierzynski, and Jon Pounds

Community Participants: Hundreds of volunteers from Chicago neighborhoods, suburbs and smaller towns along the Illinois and Michigan Canal

Sponsors:  Variable – Four mosaic covered concrete benches connected by a terrazzo path

Year:  1998

Scale:  150 square feet

Materials: Concrete, hand made ceramic tile, and glass tile

Information: Water Marks, situated in Gateway Park at the entrance to Navy Pier, is one of the country’s most monumental community public artworks. A project of the Chicago Public Art Group and the Canal Corridor Association, the mosaic bench sculptures and walkway commemorate the 150-year history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal--its land, the people who built it and who have lived alongside it, and the way the canal has shaped the history of the region. Gateway Park is also the entry point of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor.

Completed in 1848, the 97-mile-long canal connected the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River--ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico--thus creating a vital route for commerce from Chicago west to LaSalle-Peru. By opening up a great passageway to the American West, the canal brought people, goods, and prosperity to the entire heartland, contributing to Chicago’s growth as a major metropolis.

Much like the canal itself, Water Marks was also the result of a great collaboration of individuals and organizations. The CPAG’s history of creating public art with communities and the CCA’s recognition of the site’s historical and present-day significance, have combined to create a unique art experience. Four years in the making and costing nearly $400,000, it is the CPAG’s most ambitious commission to date--a large-scale sculptural installation that involved artists, landscape architects and designers, historians, and hundreds of community residents.

The project had five lead artists: Olivia Gude, Kiela Songhay Smith, Cynthia Weiss, Mirtes Zwierzynski, and Jon Pounds. Together the artists conceived the project’s form and designed and executed the intricate mosaics that cover the benches; Jon Pounds participated in the sculptural design of the benches and organized the implementation of the work. The artist team was assisted by 16 professional artist assistants. 266 volunteers from 11 sites along the canal route--including Bridgeport, the Palos Hills Forest Preserve, Joliet, Morris, Marseilles, Ottawa, and LaSalle-Peru--contributed the 941 handmade ceramic elements interspersed among the 125,000 glass mosaic tiles.

Dedicated April 18, 1998 during the official inauguration of the I&M Canal sesquicentennial, Water Marks offers a tremendous opportunity to educate thousands of daily visitors about the geology, agriculture, settlement patterns, and transportation history of the 120-mile Heritage Corridor.

The Path
The multicolored terrazzo path that winds through the green, geometric layout of Gateway Park represents a map of the I&M Canal as it connected to the Chicago and Illinois Rivers and then on to Lake Michigan. The walkway connects the four sculpted cast-concrete, mosaic encrusted bench forms that are nestled in the park’s landscape berms. Each bench sculpture has its own title and represents a facet of the canal experience.

The Water Bench
The center bench is a poetic representation of the passage of water through our communities and lives. The form is loosely modeled after a canal boat--its deck and cabin, as well as the wake created with its movement. The bench’s images include the flora and fauna of the waterways in the Heritage Corridor region.

On the deck of the boat are two catfish, seen from above and through the water. The concentric circles of the splashed water around the fish begin a movement that spills out to the larger concentric circles on the terrazzo path.

The seat of the bench moves through the seasons as the ceramic leaves and glass tiles change from summer to fall and then to winter colors. The leaves--designed to appear as if floating on top of the glass water--were made by volunteers in Morris and by youths at the Palos Hills Forest Preserve. Leaves were pressed into slabs of wet clay and then the outer silhouettes were carefully cut out. The ceramic fish were made from the plaster molds of actual fish caught in the canal near Morris.

On the vertical “cabin” wall above the “deck” of the boat is a native water lily and a catfish-within-a-fish inset. Hidden in the blue waves on the upper skirt of the bench are the eyes of the Orisha of deep waters, Yemonja, protecting the lake and its people.

The west side of the bench flows into the form of a dugout canoe, paying homage to the Native Americans who first portaged the waterways in the corridor region. Near the canoe are turtles, dragonflies, and egrets--all frequent inhabitants of the shores and waterways of the Illinois, DesPlaines, and Chicago Rivers, as well as of the canal.

The mosaics in the skirt of the bench also include a sunken column recently retrieved from the lake, and garbage--a tennis shoe, a tire, broken bottles, etc. While depicted fancifully, these images are a sober reminder of how the waterways from Chicago to LaSalle/Peru have been used as dumping grounds for industrial and urban waste.

The bench, flowing to the east, ends with intersecting concrete forms. On the end skirt are designs of the sun and passages of the moon, representing natural cycles and the ebb and flow of water throughout our lives.

For more information about Water Marks visit these portfolios:
Water Marks Lock Bench, 1998
Water Marks Turning Basin Bench, 1998
Water Marks Silurian Seat, 1998