Waves crash into the blockades of the bayfront. Seagulls yap in unison as they walk in sync, preparing to lift themselves from the pavement near Smugglers’ Wharf. A pinkish hue blankets the horizon, as customers from bars can be heard chattering while they gaze at the dropping sun. It’s Summertime in Erie, Pennsylvania, and tourists from around the globe are visiting the area to experience one of the world’s most renowned sunsets.
As the light slowly dims, consumers make plans for a tour of the city streets, while businesses on State Street prepare themselves for the night life. Vibrant with newcomers, Erie is still missing something. Once home to statues of nine-foot fish and frogs, Erie has since been looking to find another public art campaign.
“There were [a lot] of cities that were doing public art projects and anything you can do to get folks to come out and appreciate artful things is a good thing. I think it gave artists an opportunity to display their work and it gave tourists a chance to find all of the sculptures because they were everywhere, so it was a win-win situation for everybody,” said Mary C. Gensheimer, a professor at Gannon, and a fiberglass artist on both the “Go Fish” and “Leap Frog” projects.
In the early 2000’s, Erie funded the projects while working alongside businesses to sponsor the statues. In doing so, experts were selected by clients to create designs, and from there artists submitted their ideas, in which business owners were allowed to select their very own fish or frog to represent themselves. However, throughout the years, the tenacity of the decorative efforts began to fade. Some businesses still have their statues from the start of the enterprise, but most of the figures in Erie County have been eradicated or auctioned off.
Reminiscing about how the statues invoked conversation, Gensheimer was pleased to discuss the unity of the organization, as her eyes glowed brightly.
“What we found was that there were a lot of school kids that got involved, there were teachers that were really creative, [and] high school kids came. I know students here at Gannon helped me in the transport. It ended to be a wonderful community effort,” she said.
When discussing the particulars of the first project, Go Fish, Gensheimer highlighted the extreme efforts that were pushed into the projects.
“It was a huge commitment of time [and] the fish were beautifully designed, but they were big and heavy, and they had to be transported. [There was also] a book designed to help folks find all the fish, so it was a logistical challenge,” she said.
Inspired by a City
Tammy Roche, vice president for the YMCA of Greater Erie, was in charge of logistics for both projects, and she said, “Very important to the success of the project was the buy-in of our local companies and corporations. We needed money to get started. We couldn’t manufacture a prototype, [and] we couldn’t get an artist to do anything because we didn’t have any starting capital, so we really went into companies with examples from Chicago and a template that we knew worked from other cities.”
In 1999, Chicago established a successful narrative for its own city, “Cows on Parade.” Included in the public display were approximately 300 life-size fiberglass cows, hand-painted by local artists, which attracted about 2-million visitors to their streets. When “Cows on Parade” came to an end, the statues were auctioned off and the $3.4 million earned was donated to various charities.
After the public art project, Chicago continued to grow with murals and statues. Erie has since experienced murals here and there, but nothing close to the scale of what Chicago has produced. With that said, public art projects are not meant to be competitions, but public art does not appear to be as prevalent in Erie as it once was.
“Some of the folks are still here, and some of them are not in Erie anymore. Would it be neat to do something like that again? Yeah it’s always a good thing. Is there a group that has that kind of impetus to really kind of make that work? Maybe. I always thought it would be fun to do Lake Erie Sea serpents,” said Gensheimer.
When discussing the start-up of Go Fish, Roche spoke of how it was an enormous effort to involve companies who were willing to participate in the project.
“We pitched an idea of what this would be like in Erie, so we got some start-up investment from local companies, Gannon University, PNC Bank and others that gave us substantial dollars to get the project going, and from there you could sponsor a fish for three-thousand dollars and if you wanted a fish your company or you as an individual, that’s what the cost was, we were essentially funding the project itself and proceeds from the Go Fish were split evenly between the Erie Art Museum’s public art fund and the Gannon University scholarship fund.”
Continuing the Legacy
“The Fish Commish,” as Roche called the group, eventually continued on to be the organizers of the subsequent project, “Leap Frog.” However, After Go Fish “The Fish Commish” took a year off because the market became saturated with fish, as there were over 100 statues in the streets of Erie. The first project was wildly successful, but for the sake of avoiding oversaturation, “The Fish Commish” took 18-24 months to relax, while planning their next enterprise.
Speaking about the decline of the statues, Roche said, “Leap Frog as it was successful was not as successful as Go Fish, and again I think it was market saturation. Three-thousand dollars to sponsor a public piece of art is a lot of money, so in part I think it was that. The other thing that happened was those of us that were “The Fish Commish” got kind of burned out. It was a long four years and we did it as volunteers on top of our full-time jobs, [plus] we had family responsibilities. [Therefore,] like everything there’s a cycle, and we didn’t think a third project would be in our best interest.”
Since the fish and frogs, the Erie Art Museum has dipped their toes in the water with smaller scale projects, and the largest one since deals with bike racks.
Their website reads, “first there were fish. Then there were frogs. And now… bike racks! The Erie Art Museum’s current community art project involves the installation of artist-designed bike racks throughout the city and surrounding areas. Community members and local artists submitted designs for the initial stages of the project, ranging from abstract forms to pieces commemorating Erie history. The project reached its original goal of installing 40 bike racks in Downtown Erie and is now expanding, to bring this versatile art form to sites throughout Erie County.”
Although Erie has replaced the fish and frogs with bike racks, there’s still something sentimental about the zany figures that once gave personality to Erie. In fact, there are still blog pages in circulation, which portray loved ones taking pictures with the figures. All you have to do is access your browser and search, “The Erie Frog Blog,” and “Tall Tales From a Small Town.” People truly adored the figures, and the proof is in the remnants of history.
Erie musician Teddy Rankin was very young at the time, but still remembers the statues vividly.
“The frogs specifically, that’s when I learned about what a leap year was and I was right around that age where I thought that was super cool, and I thought it was super cool that Erie was doing something to commemorate that. I looked forward to when they would do that again, and they just kind of didn’t, so I would love to see that come back and inspire [the] next generation of kids to explore things,” said Rankin.
Rankin spoke of the statues with a tremble in his voice. His eyes drooped slowly and his expressions were remorseful.
“I think if you’ve lived here forever, you become numb to those things and it’s very easy to take the city for granted, and not appreciate it in the ways that it deserves to be appreciated,” he said.