The larger-than-life Lionfish

"Lionfish," 2013 by Kitty Wales; steel, paper, mixed media
"Lionfish," 2013 by Kitty Wales; steel, paper, mixed media Photo by Kathryn Osgood

Inspired by the underwater residents of the Mystic Aquarium and models of 19th-century sailing ships at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, sculptor/installation artist Kitty Wales has created giant, animated Lionfish, which are on view at the museum through the end of the year.

The Massachusetts- and Maine-based artist teaches at Boston University. She is known for creating site-specific installations for museums throughout New England and in Florida, inspired by her direct observations of animals. These have included wild goats in the Scottish Hebrides, bearded vultures in the Spanish Pyrenees, and reef sharks in the Caribbean.

Lionfish, the subject of her newest series, are the result of a collaboration that began two years ago between the Lyman Allyn and the Mystic Aquarium.

A jumping off point for the work was the Lyman Allyn's permanent exhibit, Montesi Ships: Maritime Folk Art, featuring the handcrafted models of Italian-born seafarer Pasquale Montesi, who immigrated to Norwich in 1898.

"I just love those ships, they're so fantastic," says Wales. They're beautifully made and you really get the sense of what it was like to live on those ships - a cacophony of sails and lines and masts - verticals and horizontals. They're very sculptural and exciting to look at."

Wales says she took those images with her to Mystic Aquarium where she viewed Robert Ballard's deep-sea explorations in "Nautilus Live Theater."

Lionfish were among the creatures deep at the bottom of the sea.

"Seeing that Lionfish have so much happening with fins and spines got me thinking," Wales says. "They have so many feathery fins that really do fan out like sails of clipper ships. Watching them underwater, they move like ancient sailing vessels with dorsal sails and pectoral sails."

Wales says she knew little about Lionfish before she started the project; in doing her homework she discovered that they have become quite controversial.

Since they were recently released into the Atlantic Ocean where they have no natural predators, Lionfish have been reported to cause great harm to the underwater ecosystem by eating just about everything they encounter.

Because this was a site-specific installation, there were a number of parameters Wales needed to stay within, one being that she couldn't hang anything in the gallery, as the ceilings couldn't hold the weight- another reason Lionfish fit the bill.

"I had to think of another way of (expressing) sea creature gestures but still coming off the floor," she explains. "I was looking for sea animals that would have lots of spines and fins that I could use to elevate them."

A Lionfish is typically only about 12 inches long and Wales decided three large-scale creatures - 10 to 12 feet long - would be optimum for the space. Therefore, they needed to be lightweight and engineered to take apart for shipping to the museum from her studio. She employed a complex bolting system that would make each fish appear as one piece even though many parts had to be re-connected on site.

"You have to marry practicality with the creative process," she says.

The sculptures are constructed of welded steel covered in recycled paper, which she draws on with watercolor pencils, building up the layers, essentially creating a three-dimensional drawing.

"I knew I needed two large ones and a three-quarter size one to give a different perspective," she says. "I like to play off different gestures and personalities. I also think of them as brightly colored puppets, interacting with the audience, kind have like a stage set."

The exhibit includes prints that illuminate her investigative process.

"I like to show how I'm coming up with the ideas … the journey of the fish from the Mystic to the Lyman and a little bit of a playful narrative," Wales says.

Jane LeGrow, assistant curator at the Lyman Allyn points out that it's amazing how something so graceful and beautiful as Lionfish can be so destructive and that "the exhibit brings to mind how artists throughout history have drawn inspiration from nature.

"This is a very fresh take on an old subject," she adds. "It reminds us how much wonder we can find in the natural world."

One of three Lionfish sculptures on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
One of three Lionfish sculptures on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Photo by Kathryn Osgood

IF YOU GO

What: “Kitty Wales: Lionfish”

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625
Williams St., New London

When: On view through Jan. 5, 2014

Information: Call (860) 443-2545, ext.
129, or go to www.lymanallyn.org.

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