Controversial Bridge Is Painter's Favorite Subject

August 07, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

Don't tell Neil Harpe the old Severn River Bridge is an antiquated, crumbling draw span that snarls traffic and ranks as the worst bridgein Maryland.

To him, the 67-year-old drawbridge is nothing less than a work of art -- after he's done painting it, that is.

The longtime artist's eyes -- and his hands -- capture images of the bridge in all its simple splendor: Crabbers line the pavements, bushel baskets and fishing rods by their sides.

A white sail boat glides across the water, framed by the draw bridge's heavy piers, arched openings and copper-topped operator's booth.

A handful of cars stop for one of the best views historic Annapolis offers, a panoramicglimpse of the domes and steeples overhead, as the span opens for a passing boat.

To hear Neil Harpe tell it, the old crossing is quintessential Annapolis, the perfect complement to a 350-year-old seaport city and, save for the modern cars, just the way he remembers it from his childhood.

Now, the 45-year-old artist and Annapolis nativehas re-created the bridge, first photographing the scenes, then working from the pictures to produce lovely watercolors with unassuming titles.

He's finished "Severn River Chicken Neckers," "Crabbing on Severn River Bridge," and "Heading for the Bay" as part of a series of works featuring the bridge.

Harpe's timing could hardly have been better in the summer when debate over whether to replace the old drawbridge with an 80-foot-high crossing rages in lawmakers' chambers, in the columns of local newspapers, at rallies from the streets of the Colonial capital to the Governor's Mansion.

Harpe certainly shares the sentiments of the thousands of people fighting to stop the high bridge but says he considers himself "thoroughly non-political" andnever intended to become part of the crusade against the high bridge.

Now, though, he wishes he had joined the fight sooner because, he says, a city's skyline, its identity and small-town charm hang in the balance.

"I just can't conceive of Annapolis without the bridge," Harpe says. "I don't want to see a damn 80-foot bridge there so people can rush across. Building that thing would be a tragedy, a permanent disruption of a way of life."

"What a tragedy, what a tragedyit would be to lose such a beautiful piece of Annapolis before future generations can even appreciate it," says the father of two daughters.

"They're taking away something that's precious, a real symbol of Annapolis. It'll become just another memory, but it doesn't have to."

State highway planners don't share Harpe's view of the bridge,of course.

They have written the draw bridge off as a dinosaur, dangerous and incapable of handling an estimated 28,500 vehicles a day. And if it's not replaced now, the highway planners say, the state will lose some $32 million in federal highway funds, the bulk of the bridge's $40 million cost.

But Harpe, like many of the more than 5,000 people who have signed petitions opposing the high bridge, is tired of hearing about the money.

"I think we got our priorities all screwed up," says the bespeckled artist, whose scraggly gray hair sprouts from the sides of his bald dome.

"We're talking too much about expediency. Right now, the expedient thing is saving dollars, abouthow we don't want to lose that money.

"The fact that their tryingto build this bridge and saying they'll lose money if they don't is a weak argument. It's our money, it's my money, and the people shoulddecide how it's spent."

Harpe says his paintings of the bridge should appear in local stores, including McBride Gallery on Main Streetin Annapolis, within a few weeks.

He's also considering donating reproduction rights to Citizens for the Severn Scenic River Bridge, the group fighting the high span, in hopes of saving it.

The paintings are the latest of scores of Harpe's works depicting waterborne subjects like commercial fishermen and their low-slung skipjacks, lighthouses, tugboats. Though he painted watercolors of the drawbridge, most of his works are lithographs, from which he produces color prints individually.

The 1964 Annapolis High School graduate, who earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts at the Maryland Institute and a master's at George Washington University, won't say how much he makes.

But he counts himself among the fortunate few artists who don't haveto work a day job to survive. His works, ranging from $250 to $1,500, have consistently sold out at the more than 100 East Coast dealers from New Hampshire to Florida that carry them.

Harpe says he hopeshis latest works cause people to pause, if only for a few moments, to savor the old bridge and consider its beauty -- like the guy forcedto stop as the draw lifted a few weeks back.

"I sat there watching him, and he just jumped out of his car, livid and red-faced, and hesays, 'Dammit, I got to get across,' " Harpe recalls.

"Then he looked down and saw the boat and took a look at the bridge, and an immediate change came over him. He smiled and just stood there watching. This guy was forced to just slow down and look around him, and it wasamazing to see the effect it had on him."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.