Ocean City - Go ahead and call them "whimsical." Everybody does.
Take a look at any of the 82 tongue-in-beak 5-foot fiberglass birds bolted to the boardwalk or placed in other conspicuous locations all over Maryland's favorite beach resort and in towns nearby.
They're colorful. They're clever. They're all downright cute, adding up to a whimsical six-month display of public art here "downy ocean."
That's one of the names in Ocean City's Beach Birds art show - Downy Ocean at Sunset. There is another inside joke for Baltimoreans, the OC Hon bird. There's Tern, Tern, Tern ... to Everything There is a Season bird and a jousting bird to honor the state's official sport.
For those in a patriotic mood, the show includes Red, White and Blue Bird. There's even one with a dog's head, Jonathan Livingston Beagull.
Eventually, the giant-sized beach plovers, made by a Canadian craftsman and painted by area artists in themes they dreamed up, will be sold to the highest bidders to raise money to pay for future public art shows at the beach.
Meanwhile, says Lauren Taylor, the restaurant and hotel owner who headed the effort for Ocean City's downtown redevelopment authority, the birds are an entertaining and unstuffy art exhibit that will run through October.
"The idea first was to offer something similar to the marlin sculpture at the foot of the Route 50 bridge or the osprey at Fourth Street - art in public places," Taylor says. "Indirectly, we wanted to encourage early tourism by starting now and to boost regional tourism by placing some of the birds in the towns near Ocean City," such as Pocomoke City and Berlin.
Corporate sponsors, individuals and various government agencies covered the $170,000 cost - $750 for each unpainted bird, $1,000 per plover for the artists who painted them, along with the cost of brochures/maps and other publicity for the Beach Birds program.
Bill Gibbs, an Ocean City native who owns a half-dozen Dough Roller restaurants, figured he would do his part to help pay for the program. But when he heard artist Betsy Hall Harrison's theme for his bird, that sealed the deal. The Dough-Dough Bird now stands near his pizza place at Third Street and the boardwalk.
"I just figured I'd be a good corporate citizen, but with the dough thing, it was just obvious, it was perfect," Gibbs says.
Harrison - who usually works at batik, a technique using hot wax and dyes on silk - designed and painted three birds for the show, including Birdwalk Elvis, dedicated to a longtime local character who patrols the Boardwalk decked out as the King.
"I never thought I'd be telling people my wife was spending too much time with Elvis," said her husband, Albert Harrison. "I am glad to get him out of my basement."
The Harrisons thought the Ocean City bird project was a grand idea. After all, they had been unsuccessful bidders for a painted fiberglass fish in a similar art show, Fish Out of Water, two years ago in Baltimore. That exhibit's auction raised nearly $400,000 for youth arts programs.
Charm City is just one of the big cities and small towns that preceded Ocean City with its unpretentious public art exhibit, says Mike Hurley, the mayor of Belfast, Maine, where the theme for the past four years has been bears.
"I had seen the original show like this with cows in Chicago and I came back to Belfast with an idea," Hurley says. "It's been done everywhere with everything, including one show with sofas, a TV and office furniture. That wasn't as enduring as the animals."
Washington, D.C., featured elephants and donkeys displayed throughout the city in an exhibit known as the party animals.
Since founding the exhibit in Belfast, with a population of 6,500, Hurley has become the U.S. distributor for Eloi, an artist from Quebec who makes the basic fiberglass animals that have been used in shows all over, including here. The next will be dinosaurs in Wilmington, Del.
In addition to the inherent charm of the animal exhibits, Hurley says their popularity with municipal leaders is tied to their appeal to tourists. In Belfast, town officials estimate that as many as 60,000 people come to see the bears each year. The first art show helped give the town the biggest jump in sales tax receipts in Maine that year.
"The essential thing since the first one in Chicago is that they are remarkably successful in getting people to enjoy art who would probably never set foot in an art gallery," Hurley says.
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