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John Kelly's Washington

Help for Bears in Disrepair

By John Kelly
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C14

Life is tough for an urban panda.

All that your native Chinese brethren have to worry about is habitat destruction. But when you're a city panda, "living" on the mean streets of Washington, you can't let your guard down for an instant. Is that person walking up going to snap a souvenir photo or is he going to pull out a baseball bat and go medieval on you?

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities positioned 150 decorated pandas across the city this summer as part of its PandaMania project. It followed the Party Animals project -- elephants and donkeys that were on the streets two years ago.

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Although the elephants and donkeys escaped relatively unscathed, vandals took to the prettified pandas with the destructive glee of a young Pete Townshend splintering an electric guitar. Over the course of the project, close to two dozen pandas were damaged in a fashion that required reconstructive surgery.

"I was so amazed at the destruction in this project," said Alex MacMaster, who managed PandaMania. "It was very sad."

The results of the vandals' fury can be seen at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, where an unused retail space has been turned into a sort of MASH unit for mashed pandas.

Among the pandas undergoing treatment when I visited was one titled "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," a panda that artist Nina Fuerth had decorated with brown and white glass tiles. The left arm had been torn almost all the way off. The left elbow on Greg Scott's "Jazz-E Panda" had been destroyed.

The right ear had been torn off "Beara Cotta Warrior" by Melissa Shatto.Nick Aumiller's "Urban Portly" lost both his ears, allowing you to look right down into his panda brain -- in this case yellow insulation foam that fills the sculptures.

Francisco Quintanilla had covered his panda, "Booted," with paintings of pink parking tickets and encased the bear's left foot in a clamp-like boot. "Booted" was in the hospital for a new foot.

"I didn't actually think that somebody would break off the foot," Francisco told me when I called him. "I was pretty sure that there would be attempts to steal the boot, which is why I secured it as well as I did." That meant putting a steel bolt through the boot and into the foot. That wasn't enough. The boot was wrenched off, taking the foot with it.

"The boot was the primary thing that made it interesting," Francisco said. "I'm sorry more people didn't get to see it in its full glory."

Nobody walked away with the prop that Raphael Pantalone attached to "PandArt!" -- a giant paint brush -- but the panda did suffer the indignity of having it ripped from his grasp, then used as a cudgel to bash in his face.

All of these pandas should consider themselves lucky. On July 24, Zora Janosova's "Climbing Pandas" went missing completely from its spot at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW. It has yet to resurface. Authorities received a tip that it was spirited to Burke, where -- like some horrible homage to the movie "Fargo" -- it ended up in a wood chipper.

Why were so many of the pandas so ill-treated? Alex said many of them were positioned dangerously close to nightclubs.

"In the evening hours after you come out of a club, you're obviously intoxicated and just not aware of your strength," she said. "Or you just have a group of friends there to encourage you to be stupid." She also thinks that Washington was a gentler place when the Party Animals were on the street, still in the somber aftereffect of Sept. 11, 2001.

The artists knew that with public art comes, well, the public. Leslie Cohen, whose panda had a pretty safe time at 16th and L NW, showed up at the Panda Hospital on Saturday to help Alex bathe the dirtier pandas in mineral spirits and Murphy's Oil Soap.

"You work on it. You really labor over it," Leslie said. "Some [artists] are very relaxed, but I wanted to put an electric fence around mine."

Also on hand was Howard Connelly, the sculptor charged with fixing broken pandas before they are auctioned off Oct. 9. Among his tools are a thick mastic that he gloops on and material normally used to fix rust spots in cars, plus rasps and files for reshaping.

Ears are simple, Howard said, since the company that made the pandas sells replacements. Some damage poses more of a challenge, like the shattered snout of PandArt!

"The nose was all in pieces," Howard said. "I had to make a puzzle out of the nose and fit them all together."

One hates to blame the victim, but is there just something about a panda -- its big googly eyes, its emotionless face, its piñata-like head -- that brings out the inner thug?

"Vandalism is ugly," Howard said. "Anybody who's into ugly is not into cute. I think anything that's beautiful suffers from a misinterpretation."

Still, Howard confided that he did wonder what it would be like to see one of the pandas be pushed over onto its nose. He thought it would make a sound like pop!

Knob-Twirling

On Friday I mentioned that thieves often sneak out of appliance stores with knobs they've wrested from washers, dryers and the like. An appliance salesman said he wondered why people would bother to steal something so cheap.

Ann Karr of Fairfax was among readers who said they're not that cheap. The last time Ann checked, GE wanted $22.50 to replace a knob on her cooktop.

"I haven't resorted to shoplifting any knobs but can understand why some folks would be tempted," she said.


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