Feasting on crab sculptures by the bushel


Long associated with bottom feeding and Old Bay, the crab has commanded little respect in artistic circles.

Perhaps its time has come.

This month, a call went out for artists with a yen to create crab art. By May, as many as 200 of the 5 1/2 -foot decorated crab sculptures will pop up all over town - the Inner Harbor, City Hall, maybe even at M&T; Bank Stadium.

"I want to see them all over town. Put them everyplace!" said Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, one of several organizations in the Baltimore Crabtown Project, a public art and school fund-raising effort.

The painted, fiberglass crabs will be auctioned at $3,000 apiece. Proceeds will go to the Believe in Our Schools Campaign, with organizers hoping the Crabtown project will raise $1 million to improve city schools, said David Costello, director of the Mayor's Office of Community Investment, the office overseeing the project.

The effort comes four years after the city's "Fish Out of Water" project stocked Baltimore with 200 fish sculptures and raised $676,000 for city school and arts programs. Crabs were apparently the first choice for Baltimore's 2001 foray into a national epidemic of animal art in public places (cows in Chicago, pigs in Cincinnati, flamingos in Miami). But they were passed over for fear that vandals would snap off their pincers. As it turned out, vandals attacked about a dozen of the fish sculptures.

This time, organizers promise not only whimsical and wacky crabs but sturdy ones at that.

"As you can imagine, vandalism will be a concern. But the crab is going to be pretty solid," said Costello.

Besides being a fund-raising tool and tourist attraction, could this be the crab's big chance for a glorious place in art history? With its blue back and long, thin legs, the crab, after all, has an odd elegance. And food has inspired hundreds, maybe thousands, of masterpieces. Think of Manet's famed asparagus. Or Andy Warhol's soup can.

Alas, the crab seems destined for art historical obscurity. "Because they're eaten, you see them mostly in the context of food - restaurants and other types of genre scenes," said the Walters Art Museum's Kathleen Emerson-Dell, a project coordinator and former curator.

But, she added: "You also see them in Japanese prints, because they sometimes represent the ghosts of samurai warriors who died in sea battles."

At the Walters, crabs are just plain hard to come by, said curator Joaneath Spicer. "I don't have any paintings of crabs," Spicer said, "though we've got lots of images of turtles."

There is a drawing by the 19th-century Baltimore artist Alfred Jacob Miller depicting a boy holding a crab over the head of a sleeping figure, and there are a few Japanese netsuke carvings of crabs, but that seems pretty slim pickings.

Things aren't much better over at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the collection contains a splendid 2nd-century tile mosaic from the ancient Roman city of Antioch showing a sea goddess surrounded by different kinds of sea creatures. One of them might be a crab, said BMA curator Sona Johnston.

There's also a marvelous 10-color screen print by the late Baltimore artist Tom Miller called Maryland Crab Feast, depicting a convivial gathering of people sitting around a table loaded with seafood.

The Crabtown Project has asked more than 1,200 area artists to consider submitting designs. Organizers expect at least 300 responses, and by early May "we hope to start rolling the crabs out," Costello said. The first crab location is unknown.

Artists who participate will be paid $1,000 and 10 percent of their crab's auction price. For $3,000, a business or individual can sponsor one of the sculptures, which will be on display in the city until November (when the auction for the school fund will be held). Donors can also sponsor a bushel of four blue crab sculptures for $10,000.

If you want to own a crab outright, you'll need $7,500 - and a very good explanation on the home front.

As for the first crab to be displayed, organizers are looking for a sponsor to pay $25,000. "It will be very visible," Costello said. (The project has a lead sponsor, CitiFinancial, which pledged $50,000.)

But before anyone could rainbow-color or rhinestone a crab, the Crabtown Project needed a prototype - a guinea crab, if you will. Of a dozen artists considered, the Creative Alliance at The Patterson, one of the sponsoring organizations, selected former Bethlehem Steel worker and artist Charles Winkler. It was a smart choice, given that the man has been sculpting crabs as a hobby for a year.

"I'm getting stuff for the crab now," the 67-year-old artist, who was shopping at a Home Depot, said by cell phone. Winkler is actually working on a second crab prototype. "I took the first one to the Crab Committee, and they said it was too small."

His latest creation is 66 inches by 66 inches - a real crab beast. When finished, the 80-pound crab will stand on its back fins and be mounted on a heavy pedestal. Reportedly, it is a male crab. Another partner in this effort, Fox Industries of Baltimore, will pull a mold from Winkler's foam creation and manufacture the unfinished fiberglass sculptures for the artists to decorate.

Winkler said he's proud to be involved - especially because it's not one of those fish sculptures. "It's really better than that goldfish they made," he said. "At least they could have made it a rockfish or bluegill or bass or something. It didn't look like anything from Maryland. It had no character."

But come spring, Baltimore will have 80-pound fiberglass blue crabs - creatures with character. Not some goldfish, as Winkler said.

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