Aquarium's 'Junk' Dolphins Ride The Recycling Tide

May 26, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

If you were asked to make a dolphin sculpture for a fountain in front of the aquarium's new Marine Mammal Pavilion, would you make it with bentwood chair backs, a bowling pin, a Christmas tree stand, a pruning saw, a croquet mallet, a watering can, bicycle and tricycle parts, a shovel blade, electricians' conduit, a golf bag, a motorcycle helmet and a shoe tree?

You would if you were Leonard Streckfus.

When the William Donald Schaefer Promenade in front of the Pier 4 pavilion is dedicated Wednesday at 4 p.m., the world will be able to see Mr. Streckfus' junk, in the form of five dolphins that appear to be swimming through the triangular fountain's machine-made 30-inch waves. The dolphins are placed at different angles, from almost horizontal to jumping over the waves. Jets of water will splash up from underneath the dolphins give the impression of the ocean's spray. The sight will serve the visitor as a hail and farewell to the aquarium, and the passerby won't have to pay a cent to see these marine mammals.

But why chair backs and tricycle parts and all that other stuff?

Because that's Leonard Streckfus' thing. For a decade now, gallerygoers have glimpsed here and there a Streckfus horse or elephant or rhinocerous, made of things that other people have thrown away. They're fun -- they make you smile. But they also somehow reflect the character of whatever they depict; it's more than just a superficial resemblance.

And there's another aspect to them, too.

"My object is to find objects whose utility is gone," the artist says, "and give them a sense of rebirth by using them again. In that there is environmentally a point."

That's one of the principal reasons Mr. Streckfus was chosen over a couple dozen other artists to be the fountain's sculptor. As Nicholas Brown, executive director of the National Aquarium and one of those who chose Mr. Streckfus, says: "It was very important to us that we represent the marine mammals [inside] the Pier 4 building in an identifiable way without their being banal. And we felt that the humor and the inventiveness of Leonard Steckfus working in found objects 'pushed the envelope' of creativity in a way comparable to all the rest of the aquarium complex. Further, the fact that found objects are being recycled underlies what we're preaching."

In case it's not obvious how the aquarium's live animals and Mr. Streckfus' junk ones are related philosophically, Mr. Brown clarifies: "The aquarium preaches that the environment is stressed by humankind through pollution and the reduction of habitat. We want to make people conscious of pollution and demonstrate the importance of multiple uses of a given object."

But, he adds, the environmental aspect was "secondary to the absolute requirement to have high art out front, and not pollute the built environment with a piece of second-class sculpture."

Speaking for LDR International, designers of the fountain, senior associate John Bassert noted the sculpture's "environmental message" but also praised Mr. Streckfus' "beautiful work."

What people will see in the fountain is not quite the usual Streckfus sculpture. After these sculptures were created out of the real objects -- the chair parts and golf bag and so on -- the separate components were cast in bronze so they can remain outdoors. Then Mr. Streckfus put the cast parts together to create the final sculptures. "They are different from junk," he says, "but people won't be closer to them than 15 feet or so, and not as much definition was needed."

For this, his first bronze work, the artist says, "I had to do catch-up on traditional sculpture techniques. I wasn't trained as a sculptor. I was trained as a mechanic and painter."

The 40-year-old Baltimore native worked as a mechanic to put himself through college at the Maryland Institute and then the University of Maryland. Back at the institute for graduate work, he was doing large paintings of junk. His inspiration for changing to sculpture came from a number of sources, from Picasso to artist and Institute teacher Sal Scarpitta, and his influences include dada and artists Rauschenberg and Johns.

His first efforts, in 1980, were made from old tires, cut to resemble a moose's antlers, and his art developed from there. "When I discovered objects in real space I no longer had to paint illusionism," he says.

In 1981 Barbara Kornblatt's Washington gallery gave him his first one-man show, and since then his reputation has spread, in part


bTC through shows in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Como, Italy. Today, the visitor to his modest house and studio in South Baltimore can find found objects serving utilitarian as well as aesthetic purposes: a rack made of horseshoes, washing machine agitators as lamp bases.

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