Exhibit captures crowd hook, line and sinker

Fish Out of Water on display before auction this week

November 12, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The obsession began one midsummer's night in Canton, when John and Rose Beers beheld the picture of piscine beauty, gaping mouth and all. It was Formstone Roehouse Fish.

They were hooked. Not just on the fiberglass fish, an ode to the un-yuppified Baltimore rowhouse. They also felt a sudden desire to track down the 179 other 6-foot-long fish that dotted the city in a bright, whimsical display of public art.

So the Beerses set out on a quest to track their quarry, venturing many Sundays to parts of the city they had never seen. "We were the only ones nuts enough to try to follow through and do all 180 of them," John Beers said.

Actually, the Towson couple was hardly swimming alone. It turns out the Fish Out of Water exhibit spawned a whole school of faux-fish lovers determined not to let even one escape the eye of their camera.

Yesterday, many visited the Columbus Center, where some of the riotously colored fish were on display in advance of a live auction to be held Saturday at the Walters Art Museum and an online auction starting Sunday. The proceeds, expected to be $350,000 to $400,000, will benefit youth arts programs in Baltimore.

"I'm surprised by the intensity of the feeling these people have about the fish," said Leslie Landsman, the project's creative director. "They're very serious about the fish."

To Landsman, the subculture's emergence showed just how avidly the city embraced the fish, including the popular frock-clad Monkfish. Orlando had its lizards, Santa Fe its ponies and Charlotte its oversize rocking chairs. Baltimore had fish, and the locals ate it up.

"A lot of people are going to be unhappy when they go away," Landsman said, although eight fish will stay in neighborhoods such as Hampden and Federal Hill.

Of course, anyone with enough space and money can take one home this weekend. Planners hope that some fish will net between $3,000 and $20,000. One that could bring much more is Cast Iron Cal, a black-and-orange number emblazoned with the number 8 - and signed by Cal Ripken Jr.

Although prospective buyers scouted the fish yesterday, many at Columbus Center were diehards trying to round out their photo collections by getting a shot of the one or two they never did find. Most said they didn't have the room or money for a fish of their own.

"There's two I missed, and I'm hoping they're in here," said Hazel Garland of Edgewater. This was her seventh fish-related trip to town, with husband Don in tow and a camera around her neck.

Joan Naujokas walked around with a checklist on a clipboard. "I've got it alphabetically and I've also got it numerically," she said of the fish list. Her husband, Joe, took the photos and she organized them.

In recent weeks, the Owings Mills couple had labored to find two fish. One was on Pratt Street, but the map didn't say it was inside. The other was on Lombard Street all right, hanging high in the air from a hook.

Bill Bouck of Anneslie got them all. He photographed every fish and turned the photos into a PowerPoint presentation. Why? Because he admired the artists' creativity and enjoyed the "treasure hunt."

Bouck first noticed the fish while driving to a construction job. Then, one Sunday in August, he drove downtown with his wife and two friends for a better look. Pretty soon he was searching alone.

"The fish turned the table on me and reeled me in," he said.

Landsman predicted public art would return to Baltimore in a couple of years - maybe another school of fish, or maybe birds. In the meantime, she hopes some buyers will return their fish to the street, catch-and-release style.

Tickets are still available for Saturday's live auction at the Walters Art Museum. The cost is $150. Sixty fish will be auctioned. Information: 410-605-0457, or www.baltimorefish.org. Starting Sunday, the remaining fish will be auctioned on eBay, www.ebay.com.

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