Art subject to scales of judgment

What do politicians' fish say about them?



Martin, Martin. What were you thinking?

Whatever possessed you to decorate a fish for exhibit this weekend at Artscape? Didn't you learn a lesson from your last foray into the visual arts?

Granted, Mr. Mayor, there isn't a stick figure to be found on the fish you submitted. (Then again, you weren't sending it to the state's top judges.) Perhaps you thought the decorating scheme you chose was non-controversial. After all, your fish is adorned with black, red and white bumper stickers from some of your most recent initiatives. "Believe" is repeated over and over on one side, and "Neighborhoods first: building a better Baltimore together" on the other.

Innocuous? Perhaps.

But you can't hide your true personality from Valerie Smitheman-Brown, an art therapist at the Kennedy-Krieger School. Your fish was one of 16 submitted by local politicians and community leaders that Smitheman-Brown analyzed yesterday without knowing the identities of the artists. After the Artscape exhibit, where the fish can be found in the National Aquarium's booth, they will be auctioned off at the aquarium's annual fund-raiser in October.

"The red on the black background indicates someone who is really passionate, but who is solid enough to get things done," Smitheman-Brown said. The color red also indicates anger, or as she diplomatically put it, "energy in whatever form it's used."

She was perhaps too polite to point out that your submission was the only fish without an eye, but viewers can, um, draw their own conclusions. An eyeless fish: A vision problem? Blind ambition? Recognizing no fear?

When it comes to the arts, Mr. O'Malley, maybe you should stick to singing.

Andrea Butler, director of media relations for the aquarium, has the advantage of knowing which artist decorated each fish. She noted that unlike the citizen artists, every politician in the group emphasized the mouth of his or her fish, making it big, prominent and colorful. (Though none added little bubbles of escaping hot air.)

By far the biggest, shiniest, juiciest fish lips belonged to Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening's fish. The copper-colored smackers were made from metallic paper and contrasted nicely with the bright teal body. Smitheman-Brown said it's significant that right next to the mouth is the state seal. "This is a person who only talks about Maryland," she said. "It's hard to find the real person beneath the political face."

Here are more observations by Smitheman-Brown and another, unscientific, observer:

The geographically-challenged award goes to U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Sarbanes' fish had a black felt outline of the state of Maryland superimposed on a red and yellow background. Atop the state outline is a crab. The crustacean is a tasteful touch, but it would have been more effective had it been located on the Eastern Shore near the, well, shore, instead of in the Appalachian Mountains in the far western part of the state. Here's a gift suggestion for the Democratic senator - a topographical map.

The "needs help following instructions" award goes to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who not only emblazoned his name on the fish in large, white letters, but also added his photograph. Rep. Cummings, the fish were supposed to be submitted anonymously. It says so right in the letter that you got from the aquarium. Just as in the House, you have to follow the rules, sir.

Technically, the orange and red fish with the straw boater hat sporting a Donald Duck figurine was submitted anonymously, but just one glance gives away the artist. Who else could it be but William Donald Schaefer? Orange, Smitheman-Brown says, indicates a person who enjoys being in control and has a hard time giving it up. Surely, she's not talking about the former Democratic Maryland governor, former Baltimore mayor and current state comptroller.

The Eye of Congress fish appears to have been decorated with recycled manila envelopes, divided into gold and black squares. Perhaps this indicates such solid Republican values as resourcefulness and thriftiness on the part of gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich. (His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, did not submit a fish.) And yet Smitheman-Brown was struck by the sole spot of contrasting color on the fish submitted by the U.S. congressman - a diminutive fin made from red, white and blue pipe cleaners. "This is a person who is focused more on the state of Maryland than on the nation," she said. But Mr. Ehrlich, isn't your day job helping to run the country?

In contrast, the Stars and Stripes Fish is notable for the large amount of white space interspersed with the blue stars and red stripes. It was submitted by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a veteran Democratic senator known for her workaholic habits, lack of diversions and for being a bit of a, well, cold fish. "This was created by a person who has a lot more left to do," Smitheman-Brown said. "There are things that he or she still has to finish and complete."

If not art school, Senator, maybe charm school?

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