By Nancy Train Smith

Installation viewable from the Museum's deck of "swimming fish"

Artist Nancy Train Smith on the Museum terrace with her “swimming” terra cotta fish.

Migration: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2013, is the final iteration of a project I have been working on for over 5 years, beginning with the Dartmouth Natural Resource Trust’s decision to create The River Project, a show of landscape scaled work on the Slocum River Reserve.

Migration began in 2009 as a “school” of 130 terra cotta fish “swimming” through a field of tall grass and wild flowers on the Reserve. After the initial 10 month showing the piece was dismantled and moved to several other venues, including the Matt Burton Gallery in Surf City, NJ, and The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA. Ultimately the piece was broken into smaller groups and now lives on in many private gardens up and down the East Coast. As I worked on the project the fish, as it were, continued to evolve. I began making more elaborate fish out of stoneware clay, firing them in Chris Gustin’s anagama kiln in South Dartmouth, and also in an anagama at St. Pete’s Clay in St. Petersburg, FL. An anagama kiln is fired exclusively with wood to a high temperature (2300 degrees) over a period of one week, and the atmosphere of the fire creates the natural patina seen on the Whaling Museum piece.

In the summer of 2012 this group of stoneware fish were shown together at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Edgecomb, ME, and faced subsequent dispersal. At that point the Collection Committee at the Whaling Museum stepped in, and to my delight acquired the whole school so that it could be permanently installed as they are meant to be. The piece is kept intact and this is the best possible outcome. Installation work like this does not really come to life until it is completed by strategic placement in the landscape. The placement is symbolic as it overlooks New Bedford’s fishing fleet that speaks so eloquently to the identity of our area.

Photograph of New Bedford harbor from Museum's deck.

Placement on the terrace viewable from the San Francisco Room deck, while aesthetically perfect, came with certain structural challenges. In order for the fish to “swim” there had to be a system for holding them in place without being too obvious. The system, or armature, ended up being a collaborative effort involving my design and Olivier and Sons Metal Works craftsmanship plus the hard work of Museum staff.

The mastermind behind the design of the armature was Mike Olivier. Although I had made a rough model of the piece as I saw it, we both came to the conclusion that we had to lay it out in “real” space in order to see how to fabricate the support system. Mike gave me a role of tar paper, and sent me back to my studio to cut out “shadows” of the 34 fish. When I came back to his shop he had rolled out more tar paper to the exact dimensions of the roof, and I was able to lay the tar paper fish on it and move them around until I was satisfied with the placement. I stood on a 15-foot ladder to simulate the view from the deck. By recreating the actual space of the roof we could come up with an accurate representation of what we were going after. This was essential because once the steel was fabricated there were going to be no 2nd chances to get it right. Mike’s ability to see exactly what needed to be done and to execute it with consummate craftsmanship was fundamental in the success of the project.

When everything was ready, we began the task of bringing the steel pieces in and up. Unfortunately after everything was laid out, I looked down from the balcony and saw that the piece was too parallel to the building, thus “killing” the dynamic sense of movement. I had to take a deep breath before I told Mike that we had to change the angle of the whole 750 lb structure! By the end of the first afternoon, we had the angle just right, and we called it a day.

The second day involved bringing the steel “staples” which hold the fish to the roof and cut each one individually to the correct height. Each staple is cushioned with vinyl tubing at every point where the ceramic touches steel.

Finally by the end of the third day all 34 fish were in place, and I had the thrill of seeing come to life what had existed only in my mind.

“Mostly, I want people to have a moment where they think about it and enjoy it… I want people to daydream; that’s what I want.”

Last modified: October 19, 2017