From local to national symbol

Though Fish Out of Water organizers initially objected, Tony Shore turned his defaced sculpture into a proud patriot.

Baltimore ... Or Less

September 30, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,Sun Staff

When Baltimore artist Tony Shore found himself needing to respond to the tragedies of Sept. 11, he looked no farther than his old Morrell Park neighborhood, and an existing work of art that needed repair.

Shore, a Yale-trained fine artist best-known for his large works on black velvet, had created one of the 180 Fish Out of Water sculptures dotting the Baltimore landscape this summer: Oktavec Fish, celebrating the city's screen-painting heritage and its pioneer, William Oktavec. But just three weeks after taking its place in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, Shore's fish was vandalized.

Shore was upset. But then came Sept. 11, and in the wake of the devastation, Shore suggested to the fish project's organizers that instead of restoring the fish, he remake it into a memorial, featuring an American flag theme with the World Trade Center on one side and the Pentagon on the other.

Organizers winced. Leslie Landsman, creative director of Fish Out of Water, told Shore she wanted him to stick with the original idea of the project.

"The concept of the Fish Out of Water project was artistic and whimsical and fun," Landsman said. "I tried to encourage Tony to repair the fish and keep it as a Baltimore tradition. I'm very sorry the screen-painting fish was damaged."

No politics, please

Shore said when he first found out his fish had been sliced by youths from the very Morrell Park neighborhood that had sponsored it, he had every intention of restoring it to its original design. But then the country went into mourning, and everything -- including art -- became political.

"When the fish got destroyed I thought about my mom always telling me everything happens for a reason," Shore said.

But Landsman saw things differently. His original fish, she pointed out, represented one of Baltimore's oldest and proudest art forms. And besides, the project had steered clear of potentially controversial subject matter from the start.

"The artists' instructions had rules about the nature of the proposals," Landsman said. "They had to be appropriate for family viewing. No sexual, religious or commercial themes." And, she said, no politically minded designs had been submitted before.

Shore, though, didn't feel right creating a work of public art that didn't somehow invoke the violent attacks still so fresh in everyone's mind.

The two managed to strike a compromise. In the 2500 block of Washington Boulevard, Oktavec Fish has given way to Old Glory, an American flag fish -- without the images of buildings on either side.

"Our original idea was too potent," Shore said. "Maybe a little intense for people right now."

The flag idea, though, fits right into the Morrell Park community, said Shore, who grew up in the neighborhood just outside Pigtown. Flags already hang from porches and are affixed to cars along Washington Boulevard.

"In this community, one of the things that has been prevalent for a long time are the American Legion and the VFW," Shore said. "They've always been a staple of the community."

'There would be an uproar'

There were other, more practical reasons for going with the flag theme as well. For one, it would take far less time to complete than the repair of the original, and the fish sculptures are only up for another month. And a red, white and blue fish is less likely to be vandalized again.

"There is a graffiti problem within this community," Shore said. "If the flag gets defaced, there would be an uproar here."

So, last Wednesday, Shore and a handful of neighborhood kids repainted the fish in patriotic colors. Argent Torres, 14, delayed studying for a test to show up and help.

"I wanted to help them replace what was lost," he said. "The flag makes you look at it and reflect on what happened. I hope nobody messes it up."

Shore hopes Old Glory will be a helpful recognition of Sept. 11.

"It ... addresses a larger issue of grief," Shore said. "People are trying to deal with grief and anger."

Landsman says the new fish could be therapeutic, because the sculptures are intended to make people smile.

"If we can make this a positive thing, I'm all for that," Landsman said. "I hope the flag fish will help make people feel good."

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