Fish are swimming slowly in the breeze along Main Street in Laurel among a variety of native grasses. Some have bright colors, others are lifelike and still others are covered in bottle caps and litter.
The third in a series by the Laurel Arts Council — the first was a tiled bench at McCullough Field, the second a glass mosaic at the Municipal Pool — the fish-planter public art project came about after a fall 2020 meeting of Laurel for the Patuxent.
“They were talking about the planters down by the station being empty and full of weeds,” said Cheryl Dyer, a member of the community group that focuses on protecting the Patuxent River watershed and the environment. “The idea got in my head and I made a little sketch and took it to the Arts Council.”
Dyer’s sketch of fish took off from there. A collaboration between the Laurel Arts Council, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Laurel for the Patuxent and local artists, the fish-planter project features 35 wood cutouts of fish painted and decorated by local artists and planted alongside native plants in 10 planters along Laurel’s Main Street, from the municipal pool to the train station.
“The project is unique and attests to local ingenuity,” wrote Melissa Holland, who chairs the city of Laurel Arts Council, in an email. “I don’t know of any other place that’s installed public art in this form and serving this many interests.”
Those interests are Main Street revitalization through public art, community engagement, environmental education, native plant promotion, and publicizing local artists while giving them a platform for creative expression.
A former member of Laurel Arts Council, Dyer said both Laurel for the Patuxent and the Arts Council trusted that her “feeble little sketch” would work out.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the river and runoff and the environment,” Dyer said. “Fish is a basic shape people can recognize. Most people do associate a river is healthy if there are fish in it.”
Nine artists were given artistic freedom to design their selected fish as they saw fit. Inka Patel, a member of the arts council, did four fish, each featuring a side of henna-inspired artwork and a side of the sky and the powerful rays of the sun, she said.
“Henna, I have been doing it since as a child,” Patel said. “It took a lot of time, but they came out beautiful.”
Keri Anne Fuller did her fish in primary colors to make them “fun and playful,” she said.
For her fish, Dyer wanted to send a message about pollution in the rivers. One fish is covered in bottle caps with skulls and bones painted on them to symbolize various chemicals and other poisons people put in the river. Another fish is covered in litter — discarded face masks, a bottle, drinking straws — that Dyer, herself, removed from the river.
“Thinking is what took so long,” admitted Dyer, who was one of the last to turn in her fish. “Artists had about a month to work. It was not a long time. We wanted to install them this year.”
The arts council paid for supplies and the artists donated their own materials and time. A variety of native grasses were purchased and planted by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which will also maintain and water the planters as needed.
Installing the fish in the planters proved to be a challenge, Dyer said, and the first few planters were a struggle to do. Larger planters have four fish installed on metal rods while smaller planters have three fish.
“The native plants will be a resting place ... for birds and insects to hang out,” Dyer said. “They will be beautiful when they get full. Purples, pinks, reds with the fish swimming through them.”
The project will generate a lot of interest and awareness, both for the environment and for the arts council, Patel said.
“For years, we have been encouraging and promoting to add more art,” Patel said. “They are spread across Main Street. More eyes will see them. Trash and pollution, fish are most affected by our actions. This is one way to save the environment.”
Each planter will have a URL supplied by the city, that will provide information about the artist and the various organizations that supported the project. The fish are scheduled to remain in place for two years and then be returned to the artists.
“People have asked to buy them,” Dyer said. “In two years, artists will decide what to do with the fish. Two years of weathering will take its toll.”
For Kathie Peterson, a Laurel artist, the fish project helped her get out of a “COVID funk.”
“I was grateful she [Dyer] asked me to participate,” said Peterson, who created three fish covered in beads and embossed copper eyes. “She asked us to get our creative juices flowing. It really helped me get out of the doldrums.”
“I was honored and thrilled to be participating in this art project,” Patel said. “They all did an amazing job.”
Dyer is already thinking of the next installment for the planters.
“Probably insects or butterflies,” Dyer said. “We missed cicadas.”