Any knowledge of sculptures mounted on light poles in Southeast: a dog jumping through a hoop at Third and D streets SE and a grasshopper at Seventh and G SE? For a minute, I thought I was on “Sesame Street,” and went on a bit of a scavenger hunt to see if there was an Elephant at E, a Basset Hound at B. . . . But I’m not sure if I’m following the right trail. I’m curious who the artist is. I love the sense of humor. If these agile creatures have managed to populate more of the corners, I want to find them!
The works are, indeed, meant to symbolize the alphabet — a bit of it, anyway. There are 10 animal sculptures, representing the letters D, E, F, G, I, K, L, N, S, V. That’s 16 letters shy of a complete alphabet, but enough to spell such nifty words as “elfin,” “fiend,” “evil” and “glisk.” (“Glisk” means “glimpse” and is, Webster’s tells us, “chiefly Scottish.”)
In 2011, Capitol Hill resident Stephen Young was walking through the neighborhood and using the street signs to teach his young daughters the alphabet: E is for elephant, K is for kangaroo . . .
Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if pedestrians could see actual animal art? He brought his idea to then-Advisory Neighborhood 6B Commissioner Ivan Frishberg. He suggested that they approach the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, a nonprofit community arts organization that offers classes and performance spaces.
“It was right up our alley,” said Hannah Jacobson, who managed the project for CHAW. “We thought it was a great idea.” (Local artist Bruce McKaig served as the art director.)
How to make it a reality? CHAW first contacted the District Department of Transportation.
“It’s not the place you would necessarily first think: ‘Hey, an arts organization should go to DDOT for a public art project,’ ” Jacobson said. “But because it was going to be on the street signs, we knew we’d have to work with them.”
We may grouse from time to time about the District government, but to its credit, DDOT didn’t just say: “You wanna do what? No way.”
Instead, DDOT’s Charles Stewart contemplated how the project might work. Staffers examined such information as traffic patterns, pedestrian volume and which streets were snow evacuation routes. They came up with 10 intersections where art could be installed. And DDOT provided $35,000 in funding, enough to cover materials and artist commissions for the 10-piece pilot project.
The sculptors faced certain challenges. The works had to look good hanging off a traffic light or street light. They had to be made of material that could withstand the elements. And they could weigh no more than seven pounds. No one wanted a big animal falling on them.
Rhinebeck, N.Y., ceramist Undine Brod was assigned the letter N, for the sculpture’s location on North Carolina Avenue at Second Street SE. With friends, she started brainstorming N animals.
“People would give me a specific breed, like a Newfoundland dog or a nightingale bird,” she said. She didn’t think those would work in her more abstract style.
“I whittled it down to narwhals, newts and Neanderthals,” she said. “I went with the narwhals.”
A pod of clay narwhals — their tusks fashioned from huge nails — now swim around a lamppost near Folger Park.
On June 24, 2014, DDOT employees Robert Payton and Leon Barnes erected all 10 animals. At some point , someone stole the koala bear that Davide Prete had created for K and Fourth streets SE. Luckily, he had a second version.
“This one’s up higher,” Jacobson said.
The sculptures are expected to stay for five to seven years. Jacobson said CHAW is working to get QR codes placed near them for passersby to scan for more information.
“We would love to add more [sculptures],” Jacobson said. “To expand, we would need more funding. We’d love to expand beyond Southeast into Northeast, and across the bridge into Anacostia. Part of the point of the animals alphabet was to create a real sense of walkability and livability.”
Jacobson said that walking the entire Alphabet Animal installation took her a little less than two hours. If you’d like to do it, here they are, arranged in clockwise order starting near the Eastern Market Metro station:
Spider, South Carolina and Seventh streets SE (artist Breon Gilleran); grasshopper, G and Seventh streets SE (Carolina Mayorga); viceroy butterfly, Virginia and Fourth streets SE (Novie Anne Trump); koala, K and Fourth streets SE (Davide Prete); ladybug, L and Second streets SE (Susan Champeny); ibis, I and Second streets SE (Evan Reed); Capitalsaurus Chasing a Falcarius, F and First streets SE (Charles Bergen); narwhals, North Carolina and Second streets SE (Undine Brod); dog, D and Third streets SE (John Yanson); emu, E and Fifth streets SE (Elizabeth Baldwin).
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.