Fish On, former Art Walk darling, returns to Napa

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After charming Napans for two years, Fish On, one of the city’s most popular public artworks in recent times, is back downtown for a permanent return engagement.

The curving steel sculpture of a largemouth bass poised to snatch a frog received its second unveiling Thursday at its new home, the riverside walkway by the Historic Napa Mill complex. During the setting sun of a late-afternoon ceremony, a new addition appeared – evening floodlights set into the conical base of polished rocks, from which Fish On will now swivel with the passing breezes of the Napa River.

Though the air was still and calm on the river bank, Harry Price, the Napa Mill developer who bought and relocated the sculpture, playfully demonstrated the sculpture’s new 360-degree visibility.

“The wind!” he said with a chuckle, as he gave the metallic bass a light push, causing it to revolve tail-up like a merry-go-round while water bubbled down the tiered, recirculating fountain built into its 7-foot-tall pedestal.

Some 40 guests were invited to the Napa Mill for what Price admitted was a belated homecoming for Fish On, which first came to Napa for the city’s inaugural ArtWalk outdoor exhibition in 2010. “We’re only two years late,” he quipped, referring to earlier plans to re-introduce the artwork in the fall of 2013.

Originally displayed at Main and Third streets, the gleaming, scaled sculpture, which is taller than a human, won ArtWalk’s first People’s Choice award from residents before its removal in 2012 in favor of a memorial to Napa County service members killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Price bought the artwork from its creator, Terrence Martin, intending to move it two blocks to a parcel the developer bought as a garden for the Napa River Inn.

The installation of Fish On satisfies a city requirement that larger commercial projects, such as the planned addition to the inn, either include a public art element or add money to Napa’s public art fund.

Instead, Fish On sat for more than two years at Martin’s West Sacramento studio as a simple installation slowly evolved into something designed to capture the shifting, waxing and waning of the light.

“Things that move are so much more eye-catching,” he told the Register in July 2013 as he explained plans to add the swivel and illumination to the artwork. After six months of assembly that included internal welding to hide all seams from the fish’s exterior, the sculpture assumed its new spot about a month ago.

The lighting system, which will feature six bulbs, has yet to take its final form, according to Martin).

Even five years after its debut, Fish On’s maker expressed a slight bemusement with the grip one of his earliest works had on Napa residents.

“This was a practice piece – second sculpture I ever created, actually,” said Martin, who left behind a career in heart surgery to pursue his artistic calling. “I’ve done a lot of public sculptures, but pound for pound, this probably moved more people’s hearts than anything else I’ve done.”

Price held out hope that future People’s Choice winners in the ArtWalk Program, which displays sculptures on downtown streets, also might receive long-term homes downtown, along walking trails or outside local schools to create a picture of Napans’ artistic tastes through the years.

“It’s important to set it up so that popular selections can become part of a permanent collection,” he said. “As the generations go on, you’ll be able to see art selected by different generations of people.”

Preserving the best of ArtWalk was a goal of the city and Arts Council Napa Valley, the exhibition’s co-founders, from its origins, Mayor Jill Techel said at Thursday’s ceremony. But budget restrictions had prevented the city from acquiring Fish On before Price’s purchase.

“We started ArtWalk to highlight art and put it out on the streets,” she said. “We also went to the community and said, ‘We want to ask you what artwork you like the best, and buy it to keep it in the community.’

“You hope to have art that grabs the community so people say ‘Let’s do this,’” she said to Martin, the sculptor. “And your art definitely did that.”

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