A blue elephant is rearing its head in Roland Park.
It's standing on the lawn of a country cottage home on Hawthorne Road - a 12-foot-high plate steel sculpture made by a local artist who's using the staid, tree-covered Roland Park environs as the backdrop for his outdoor metal menagerie.
Bradford McDougall, himself a Roland Park homeowner, is forging a series of giant animal sculptures based on the drawings of his 4-year-old daughter, Olivia. There's not only the blue elephant, but an enormous orange barking dog that for a while sat in the front yard of his Oakdale Road house. And coming soon is a pink bulldog with purple polka dots.
The one-time blacksmith hopes that passers-by will develop a taste for his unusual form of metallurgical creativity. But large twisted metal pieces of modern art are certainly not what you'd expect to see in Roland Park, and not everybody's happy.
"The reaction is very mixed," says David Blumberg, president of the community's civic league. "Some look and say, 'Why not?' Some look and say, 'Why?'"
McDougall, a 32-year-old work-at-home artist, is using Roland Park as a sculpture showcase. He has lent or sold his pieces to various neighbors, based on the notion that if people try it or spy it, they might buy it.
"The new marketing is going to get kids to bug their parents enough that they have to buy it," McDougall says in a dry jest.
It all began when McDougall knocked on doors last year and, with a bit of moxie, persuaded several neighbors on Oakdale and Hawthorne roads to display one of his large modern sculptures on their front lawns.
The whimsical works in metal, stainless steel and aluminum are a stark contrast to the residential architecture of shingles, stone and slate for which Roland Park is known. But some say the modern metal motif also illuminates a side of the community's character.
Recently, law professor Tim Sellers stood outside and gazed fondly at the metal blue elephant in the greenery from his front porch. Just home from a family trip to England, Sellers explains why he, his wife, Frances, and others were willing to accept McDougall's proposal to put the azure pachyderm on his front lawn - for no charge, a glorified advertisement of sorts.
"This is the nerve center of Baltimore art," Sellers declares. "We're not Homeland. We're not Guilford. We're that funky Roland Park."
"Everyone's begging for one," he says of the sculptures.
His daughter, Cora Sellers, a 16-year-old Bryn Mawr School student, says the massive jagged sculpture of what McDougall calls the "chicken-elephant" creature is the envy of her friends.
The nearby placement of other McDougall artworks close to the neighborhood's sidewalks creates the sense of a connected series, Cora says. "It makes it fun to go for a walk."
The sculptures are also conversation pieces among adults.
"I don't necessarily get it," Blumberg, the civic league president, confesses. "My taste is more traditional and I find the sculptures ponderous. But I'm a Baltimore City Republican, so why should I think different is bad? And I do like elephants. If there's no message there, then I like it better than if there were a message and I missed it."
When asked whether anything can be done to conceal the artwork from public view, Blumberg says the answer is no, the display violates no legal codes or covenants.
In the neighborhood, the chatter goes on. Frances Sellers, Tim's wife, says the elephant is anything but a white elephant.
"We hear a lot of discussion about it, like whether it's actually a seahorse," Frances Sellers said. "People ask if it's like [Alexander] Calder."
McDougall says Calder, the famed late American sculptor, is indeed a key influence.
Another "inspiration point," McDougall says, is his daughter, Olivia, whose drawings of imaginary animals he routinely translates into three-dimensional objects for the neighborhood work-in-progress.
"I thought, it'd be really cool to make these into sculptures," McDougall says.
The sculptor is married to Therese Mulvey, 45, who works in market research. He splits his time between creating in his backyard workshop and taking care of daughters Olivia and Georgia Blue. He studied fine arts at Rochester Institute of Technology and has since made a career from wood cabinets and metal sculptures.
The life of an artist in Roland Park is anything but lonely, he says.
"This is more fun than doing the whole gallery scene," McDougall said, "since it's more about me."
But it's also hard to make cold hard cash for an early McDougall. One couple who lives across the street bought their outdoor sculpture for $4,000, McDougall said.
But the other works have gone unsold despite their prominent public display - some would say free advertising - in one of the city's most affluent areas.
In short, Roland Park's moral support for the sculptures has proved stronger than its financial support.
"That's the downfall, that I don't sell that much," McDougall says.
The exception is a couple who were complete strangers before he came to their door. Clair Francomano, a geneticist, and John Thorpe, the head of St. Paul's School, were the lone neighborhood buyers.
The couple didn't buy one of McDougall's fanciful animals. But they did take an instant liking to one of his abstract sculptures, "Y -- Livia," two brushed stainless steel discs supported by a staff on a large slate pedestal. Once the shimmering discs were installed by Francomano's bamboo grove, she and her husband became believers and wrote McDougall a check.
"It just belonged there and seemed made for the space," Francomano says. "We couldn't imagine the front yard without it."
The geneticist says she and her family think of the visual contrast between the century-old houses and the new art as a refreshing duet.
"The very modern sculptures are in harmony with the very traditional architecture," Francomano says. "I don't think John and I would have in a million years thought of buying a sculpture, but once it was there, it had to stay there."
Meanwhile, back at the McDougall home on Oakdale Road, the family continues to churn out artwork.
"We're a team, right?" McDougall says to Olivia.
"I painted it," Olivia says, referring to her "barking dog" sketch.
McDougall shrugs and concludes, "This fame is going right to her head."