An answered prayer A BLACK granite penguin, pink beak...

NOTES AND COMMENTS

April 15, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

An answered prayer

A BLACK granite penguin, pink beak pointed stiletto-straight at the heavens, prays for her family and perhaps for the city. Two nested babies huddle at her feet. Baltimore's skyline looms through a leafy barrier to the south.

Given to Johns Hopkins University by Mr. and Mrs. Ronald V. Osmun, "Penguin's Prayer" presides over a menagerie of marble and granite sculpture by Beniamino Bufano, who cut off one of his fingers and mailed it to Woodrow Wilson in protest of World War I.

Bufano remained relatively obscure, notwithstanding his splendid work and a profoundly symbolic gesture -- fingers being so critical to a sculptor's work. The point, no doubt.

The hand, which he called "father to the brain," became a theme of his work -- as serene as his protest was violent. Visitors to the site, south of the Hopkins gym, may find a moment of peace now amid a dozen of his affecting stone animals.

They will also find a statement of our conflicted humanity: a declaration of the city's strength alongside its impulse for self-destruction. One notices the very tip of the penguin's beak is gone as are the ears of the bear, the horse and camel. The reclining ram has been decapitated. The white marble snail's antennae and bits of the cat's ears are gone, too. Only the rounded elephant and owl seem to have come in shapes impervious to the vandals' hammer -- eyes well-guarded, trunk folded. To what brain, one wonders, were the hands of these miscreants attached? No one signed the work.

The sculptor's name and those of the university's benefactors are there on brass plates at the base of each figure -- a jet-black, Trojan-style horse; a cat with the bulk and girth of a bathosphere; a bear and cubs; another camel.

Two of the pieces are from Bufano's son, Erskine. The others were loaned or given by Thomas M. O'Grady Jr., Michael K. Hebler, Dr. and Mrs. Leslie F. Piskitel, M.J. Fischer and Jerry S. Mosher.

They offer an answer to "Penguin's Prayer." They had faith. Bufano made art, slightly nicked as he was, that could endure as the city can. Elegant, wounded, defiant, penguin and bear, cat and horse await the touch of toddlers.

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