These turtles are meant to celebrate UM's 150th

UM terrapin art comes to town to celebrate


The squat pumped-up turtle straddles downtown's most prominent intersection with a brash sort of stance - as if he's the first.

Alas, only the latest.

Statues painted by local artists to raise money for good causes have become Baltimore fixtures - what with last summer's colorful crab invasion and artistic fish before that.

University of Maryland terrapins, two of which made their debut yesterday at the Inner Harbor as part of the university's 150th anniversary celebration, continue what's become a seasonal rite in Baltimore and a cult fundraising favorite across the county.

After Switzerland started it all in 1998 with painted cows, a virtual Noah's Ark of arty critters escaped onto the charity circuit. Pigs in Cincinnati. Cows in Chicago. Pandas in D.C. Whales in Maui. Sheep in Reno, Nev. Bears in Pennsylvania, Washington state, Oregon and Lake Tahoe - for starters.

Fetchingly designed wildcats at the University of Kentucky, which raised money a few years ago for the school's basketball museum, inspired the University of Maryland, College Park to try its own version.

Though well-trained to fear the turtle, university advocates apparently aren't alarmed by a little copy-catting.

Terry Flannery, the school's assistant vice president for marketing and communications, says that despite the concept's popularity, it's anything but overdone.

"You would think," she says. "But if this exhibit is any indication, the creativity, excitement and pride [the artists] brought to them, it's 50 incredibly different ideas. There's a lot of vitality to it."

Baltimore's turtles are among 50 on display for the next six months across the state. The bulk are concentrated around College Park.

In October, those that haven't already been claimed for $7,500 will be auctioned off to raise money for the university's scholarship fund.

With its bold colors and Edgar Allan Poe raven motif, the buff little terp outside Harborplace was catching people's attention yesterday.

"So this year we're going to have turtles?" muses Debbie Zink, a T. Rowe Price legal specialist who says she looks forward to seeing a little art on her lunch breaks. "Every city needs something like that."

A moment later, Sylvia Pickett, in from West Virginia with her husband, Charlie, and granddaughter, Rachel, stops before the turtle and asks, "Didn't they have crabs here? That's what I thought that was."

And a beat or two later, along comes Tim Wingfield, remarking: "I like it. It reminds me of Norfolk, where they do the mermaids."

In a less conspicuous location near the National Aquarium crouches the Inner Harbor's other turtle, decorated with fish and what appeared to be a winding path of Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

There, too, comparisons to painted animals in other cities roll in.

Like the dogs in New Jersey.

Like the dolphins in Delaware.

"We have something like that in Rockport," Bostonian Gwen Brown says. "Local artists decorated lobsters."

Recalling the heist last year of one crab from its perch outside a Roland Park grocery, Brown reports that someone made off with one of her hometown crustaceans.

With this trend, even the crime gets repeated.

Despite the deja vu, most everyone spotting the turtles couldn't resist a grab for their cameras. Civic pride and public art, it seems, don't get stale.

At least Dwight Spence, a security guard positioned along the water, thinks so.

"People never get tired of helping out," he says, adding that he wishes someone would dream up a sculpture benefit to clean the harbor.

"On a very hot day, this water kicks out an odor," he says, laughing and wondering what sort of creature artists could paint to sell that theme.

"Whatever," he concludes. "Anything. It's like something died in there."

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