Any year now, the so-called Paul S. Sarbanes Transit Center in Silver Spring will be ready . . . maybe. But it’s still going to be soulless and lonely, because our penguins are missing. Years ago, forces of evil spirited our favorite commuters away to some undisclosed location. Sure, we were promised that they’d be back, but have we ever seen them again? Nope. Free the penguins!
— Penguin lover,
There are probably many people reading this column who have no idea what this person is yammering on about. In fact, if you’ve only ever been in downtown Silver Spring since 2004, you won’t remember the mural that stretched along Colesville Road, near the Metro station.
It depicted dozens of flightless, black-and-white birds — emperor, Magellanic, Adelie, African and king penguins — engaged in that most human of activities: commuting by public transportation. The mural was the work of Sally Callmer Thompson, who won a 1989 design competition sponsored by Metro to create a temporary mural somewhere near the Red Line station.
“They just asked artists to come up with something related to transportation,” Sally told Answer Man.
The challenges of the mural’s location prompted Sally’s choice of subject. She had two audiences: people walking past the wall to and from the station, and motorists in cars on Colesville Road.
“I wanted it to be a sort of readable design to people from a distance who were moving past it,” she said. “That’s one reason I liked using the penguins. It’s a recognizable shape. It’s black and white, so I could keep the colors to a minimum. It wasn’t too busy from a distance. And yet I could still put in a lot of nice little details, for when you did see it close up.”
The penguins were buying Farecards, reading newspapers, running after buses — doing everything that humans did 25 years ago (i.e., not talking on cellphones).
Sally worked with exterior latex paint, applying it to 25 eight-by-four-foot plywood panels in her Bethesda home. “I never had a really big studio space to work in,” she said. “It was like building a big ship in a little tiny garage.”
The work was meant to be up for only a year, but the public loved it. Penguinmania struck Silver Spring. Penguins showed up on T-shirts and coffee mugs. Costumed penguins showed up at civic events. The mural stayed.
Michele Cohen, a consultant with the county’s Arts & Humanities Council, said, “I think that by making anthropomorphic penguins, Sally almost lightened up the burden of daily work.
So I think that there’s a level of gaiety. It’s a friendly, welcoming image.”
That’s the sort of feeling that public art often provides. You probably don’t want to walk past “Guernica” every day.
“While I was painting it, I was imagining a sort of fantasy Metro station, where it’s always clean, everybody’s happy, the trains and escalators run perfectly,” said Sally, 58, who now lives with her husband on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “It’s a little Metro utopia.”
Of course, reality can lean toward the dystopian. Exposed to the elements as it was, Sally’s mural started to decay, especially the four panels that were not under the Metro overpass. Faded and flaking, the entire mural was removed in 2004 so Sally could restore it.
She finished that work in 2006. The refurbished panels were put in storage. They are currently in a storeroom at the Silver Spring Civic Building. There are tentative plans to reinstall “Penguin Rush Hour” this summer, in advance of the tentative September opening of the long-delayed transit center.
Of course, the transit center itself is in flux, with the county and the builder fighting over whether concrete was poured properly. But as far as the mural is concerned, there’s another problem.
“I have sort of mixed feelings about the mural going back up, because as soon as it goes back up the same thing’s going to happen,” Sally said. “It’s going to deteriorate and be ruined.”
Really, the mural should have been transferred to porcelain enamel, but that would have cost upward of $80,000. The restoration was done on the cheap: house paint on plywood.
The transit center, on the other hand, was $80 million over budget. Just a fraction of that would have bought a lot of permanent penguinage.
Don’t be shy. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.