Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Pelican Legend


June 28, 2007

Fairhope is known as an artists' colony. It never was one, but it once had a few real artists. Now it has an Art Association, mainly made up of hobby artists and offering classes in painting, sculpture and pottery to the general public. This club is very successful, and has spawned a few artists, to be sure. It's just that their idea of art does not quite coincide with mine.

An offshoot of the Art Association is a committee called the Committee for Public Art. This came into being after the Marietta Johnson Museum raised funds for a statue of Marietta Johnson, a very simple, tasteful piece with three figures, slightly larger than life, one being Mrs. Johnson herself and the other two being children who are learning from her. After the erection of this statue the Committee for Public Art went into action and raised money for a statue of "The Spirit of Fairhope." This work, an abstract, three-pronged piece in blue, stands at the entrance to the town, just across the street from the Art Association building. The committee has sponsored a number of projects, including sculpture of a couple of dolphins, a sea horse, and I don't know what else. Until the pelicans.

In the days when Fairhope didn't think of itself as an artists' colony, but rather a Single Tax Colony, we had an artist-craftsman in residence named Craig Sheldon who made his living in the construction trade. Craig was a wood-carver who occasionally got commissions to create sculpture. He created whimsical animals and occasional political whimsies out of wood, and built his own house in the form of a tiny castle, out of local tile, stone, and found objects. He raised three children and lived a rather astonishing life in his little corner of Fairhope.

At the end of his life -- I believe he was in his 80's and suffering from Altzheimer's -- he was commissioned to create a sculpture to go in the new fountain at the community college. The result is the statue of pelicans you see above. It was not Craig's best work, but it had a sense of wonder about it -- those soaring birds with their command of the sky -- as did everything he created.

He's been dead some ten years now. The Committee for Public Art had an idea to use molds of his pelicans and give them to some of their members to decorate artistically and put up all over town. Here's just a small sample of what they came up with. The effect is a Disneyfication of town, punctuating the corners of the toney, flower-bedecked village with little exclamation points of painted pelicans, looking for all the world as if they wished someone would wash them of their overwrought designs and set them free as they once were.

Word has it that one of the painted pelicans has been stolen from its perch. Someone says this is worse than stealing a Stop sign. Someone else says whoever said that is insane. Whether they are art or not they are all over town, these profaned pelicans, these tarted-up waterfowl that once made a simple statement by a complex man in the place he wanted them.

I knew Craig Sheldon, and I think I know what he'd say about the painted ladies. A temperamental man with the soul of a poet and the tongue of a sailor, I don't think he's resting in peace these days.

7 comments:

sinjap said...

we must be connected by some psychic thread...i was just having a conversation yesterday about this kind of thing...see, here in jacksonville we have manatees...i mean, we have real ones too, but we used to have these huge manatee sculptures all over town until a couple years ago, when they were all auctioned off for charity...this subject came up because i was visiting some friends and they have one of these gentle giants in their backyard, guarding the pool...so we started talking about other citites and their mascots...they told me a similar thing was done in buffalo with, of course, buffaloes...and then i told them about fairhope and the pelicans (though i didn't know the entire story)...so we started speculating on other cities...we all agreed that giant crabs on every street corner in baltimore would be kind of creepy (though they do have an enormous one in the airport)

anyway, just thought i'd let you know we were on the same wavelength

and btw, lucy's favorite is the superman pelican!

Mary Lois said...

Yeah, Fairhope's behind the curve with the pelicans...symbols are cropping up and being passed off as art in many many U.S. towns and cities.

As to being on the same wavelength, are you saying you like the painted pelicans?

sinjap said...

i do like them...wouldn't really classify them as "art", but i've seen a lot worse...they're for the kids, and the tourists...something to make the town stand out, like the flower beds...kids and tourists can't really grasp the deeper artistic and philosophical sides of fairhope...but they can tell you they want to go back to visit super pelican!

Anonymous said...

The town of Catskill, NY, has done the same thing with cats -- get it? CAT-skill??? -- and it is precious -- and I mean that in the worst possible sense. They look downright retarded and if I lived there I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to deface them all.

I think you'll be pretty safe from this stuff in Hoboken, where the animal "mascot" would probably be something like a rat or a severed horse's head. Which at least would be interesting painted up and displayed for the tourists.

Mary Lois said...

Hmm...sounds like we've got an anti-Italian reader (or anti-Hoboke anyway). Anyone from the Italian anti-defamation league want to take this?

Anonymous said...

Those gawdy painted obliterations are the same type obliteration as the late growth in F'hope. No class, only forced focus blaring out at every body else. Childish in the form of "look at me". They remind me of painted totems which
provide similar reactions in their form of look at me "I am, and I need you to see me, beware for me". Painted pelicans are a symbol of superficialism, tattoos on the ass of F'hope doomed to fade soon.

traveller said...

It's a tough call, these fiberglass sculptures that appear to be all the rage. At least yours have some connection to the town. In Erie (PA) we are subjected to creepy-looking 6-foot frogs standing on 2 legs. What frogs have ot do with Erie, I will never know.

I just visited Fairhope for the first time last weekend, and I was entranced. What a lovely town, and such friendly people. Sure you have Pelicans, but you also have flowers where we have wind-blown trash, and you have trees where we have stumps because they dare drop limbs when it storms. Fairhope is a jewel.