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Art Meets Education for Resident Fish

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photo by Kate Wilson photo by Kate Wilson

Sandpoint High students and a committed Conservation Officer work together to beautify Bridge Street

Sandpoint is transforming quickly. We have new roads, new restaurants, and new franchises moving in. We have new people, new pets, new perceptions and attitudes. With all of this newness, it’s easy to lose track of what was, but thanks to the hard work of many, we can still give a nod to our natives.

One of the fairly recent downtown transformations was the work on Bridge Street, thoroughfare to City Beach and the Edgewater, that crosses over Sand Creek and is a popular conduit for pedestrians, peddlers, and automobiles alike. Though Sand Creek is undergoing its own transformation these days, Bridge Street is now complete, and walkers have their own safe corridor across the bridge. A tall metal railing on this pedestrian section is soon to be transformed into an artistic display honoring native fish.

Tom Whalen, Senior Conservation Officer for Idaho Department of Fish & Game, is leading a project for Bridge Street that will bring key partners together while providing an eye-pleasing education for everyone else at the same time.  Years ago, Whalen, started dreaming of ways to integrate native fish information and education with art—living where we do, he saw opportunities everywhere. And driving where we do, he saw even more and talked about his vision. Well, dreams come to fruition with persistence and dedication. When the new railing and pedestrian walkway went in on Bridge Street, he got the creative glow.

Whalen is not your typical conservation officer. Yes, he can cite people for poaching or harvesting an illegal fish. But he is all about education and information. And now, art has entered his arena too. Whalen specializes in native fish protection and education; he spends time with special interest organizations, user groups and students alike. He leads programs, passes out placemats and temporary tattoos to kids, and is constantly networking and coming up with new ideas. His energy is contagious; he gets things done.

Whalen met his match in Sandpoint City architect Allen Krister, who also serves on the Sandpoint Arts Commission. Krister convinced Whalen to take his idea to the Commission and the Sandpoint City Council, who in turn responded positively to the project. Between the Sandpoint Arts Commission, Panhandle Trout Unlimited, and Avista (who supplement Whalen with his native fish educational endeavors), the daydream became a reality. Also partnering on the project are the Rotary Club of Sandpoint, Sandpoint Urban Renewal, the Sandpoint Arts Commission “Art by the Inch” program, and the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association.

Krister and Whalen worked together to come up with a design; it would be a metal and glass work, an accurate but artsy depiction of some of the fish native to the Pend Oreille system.

In deciding which native fish to focus on, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) were the obvious choice—not only do they have a special designation in Idaho, but they are listed as threatened on the federal Endangered Species Act list. In the Columbia River Basin, bull trout were historically found in about 60 percent of the basin. Today, they occur in less than half of their historic range. Bull trout also serve as an excellent indicator of water quality and stream health.

Whalen also chose to include westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) as they are a “species of concern” in the state and will no doubt benefit from the added awareness. For this project, Whalen thought it appropriate to include a prey species too, so he went with the mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni)—historically the biggest prey of both aforementioned native trout.

The first step in the art project was coming up with accurate drawings of both trout species. Bull trout are known for their pink spots and cutthroat are known by the red slash under the jaw bone. IDFG graphic artists provided accurate fish drawings and City of Sandpoint staff helped by drawing them on cardboard and cutting them out. Whalen and Krister then asked the Sandpoint High School industrial mechanics class to help out with the second step—using plasma cutters to cut the fish shapes out of steel sheets. To make matters even more interesting, Industrial Mechanics teacher Yogi Vasquez put his top dog on the project, aspiring welder Katie McIntire, a senior at Sandpoint High School.

“The hardest part so far has been getting the fish to look like the way they’re supposed to look,” McIntire said. “We had to put the fins in different spots and the mouth needed modification.”

Adding the students into the mix for this project made it all the more stimulating for Whalen. “For Yogi to actually do the work, they’re gaining and we’re gaining,” Whalen says. “By providing the materials we also provided them a project—everybody wins.” Whalen thinks that by bringing in the students it could also help reduce potential vandalism to the site. If enough people are involved, word will spread and everyone will be proud to have been a part of it.

The mechanics class is quite busy. Fat mud-tired trucks and riding lawnmowers with fangs and flames litter the scene amongst the fish cutouts.

“Right now we’re building lawnmower dragsters, starting a new club for the dragsters at school, and also holding welding contests for Skills USA,” says Vasquez. “We have lots of projects—cars, lawnmowers, and now fish!”

Though the project is challenging—creating anatomically correct native salmonids out of steel—the partners are coming together to make it happen. Soon the local glass artists, Bryan and Zabrielle Dillon, will be coming in to fit the bull trout spots with pink stained glass and the cutthroat slash with red stained glass.

“This is quite the undertaking really,” says Bryan Dillon. “Each spot is essentially a handmade, crafted art project. We felt honored that we were asked to be part of the project.”

Given the double-sided vision from the bridge and from boats on the water, the combination of glass and steel will morph to produce an art outside of the common box of fishery tools. This is art, education, and preservation combined.

“This is so Sandpoint,” says Whalen, eyes sparkling with anticipation. “This is real interpretive art.”

The fish will decorate the middle of the bridge. Whalen would like to see large steel boulders, pea gravel, and native vegetation below the fish at the base of the railing.

“It’s cool because the sheets [of metal] that we cut the fish out of kind of look like rocks, so we’ll probably be able to use all of it,” says McIntire.

At this point, the plan is to put “shadow fish” that are just the steel cutouts, in schools and by themselves, sandwiching the middle of the bridge that will have the stained glass components. It will draw onlookers’ eyes to the sun shining through the brightly-colored glass, right where it counts—directly over the water on the middle of the bridge. The shadow fish will also appear on the outside of the railing for the benefit of boaters crossing under the bridge.

“Thousands of people are going to walk by ands see this,” says Whalen. “Getting all of these partners together creates an even bigger awareness; it gets people to think about native fish.”

The City of Sandpoint has stepped in and agreed to maintain the project for the future. This brings the number of partners to a local arts commission, a city, an urban renewal organization, a rotary club, business organizations, a high school, a non-profit conservation organization, a utility company, local glass artists, state fish and wildlife agencies, and more. It is not just a pretty impressive effort; it’s a fun, challenging, and collaborative endeavor.

It could take a couple of years to finish the project. But what an exciting concept—coupling development, infrastructure, public awareness, and art.

“It will create a groundswell of community involvement that also builds consensus,” muses Whalen as he stares out over the railing on Sand Creek. “We can spend our education dollars wisely while thinking outside of the box.”

Photos: top: SHS Industrial Mechanics students with the project art.

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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