Go fish: Niantic school decorations gone for good
East Lyme — As part of The Day's CuriousCT initiative, a reader asked: "What happened to the fish mural on the Niantic Center grammar school? It was removed at the start of renovations but has not been returned."
As of just a couple years ago, had someone driven into downtown Niantic, they most likely would have noticed large, brightly colored and strangely shaped fish murals installed on the sides of the Niantic Center School at the intersection of Route 156 and East Pattagansett Road.
The fish, abstract and resembling a pop artist's underwater dreams, had become a landmark of sorts for the waterfront village since they were installed on the school building in the late 1990s. Both beloved and revered by residents and visitors alike, the fish inspired curiosity.
So when the fish were removed during a districtwide elementary school renovation project, which began in the summer of 2018 and was completed in September, many residents and fans of the fish have since been wondering, what has happened to them? And will they ever return?
Because the fish installations were made of polyurethane foam, according to Day archives, and because of their age, all were entirely destroyed during their removal, Superintendent Jeff Newton said during an October Board of Education meeting.
"They can't go back on," Newton had said. "They were Styrofoam, so they crumbled."
He was not immediately available by Friday's deadline, nor was Niantic Center School Principal Jeffrey Provost.
Originally created by formerly Groton-based artist William Kovel, the fish sculptures, before coming to Niantic, temporarily were installed on the sides of the Mystic Aquarium in 1997, according to Day archives. Kovel had first installed five "huge" sculptures on the aquarium's western walls, according to his website, before later installing four more fish-head sculptures along the building's roof line on its south wall in 1998, as well as an additional 62-foot-fish on the north wall facing Interstate 95.
The sculptures were meant "to provide a visual way of speaking about such ecological problems as ocean pollution," Kovel wrote on his website about the installation. "They give the fish a voice."
Reached by phone Friday, Kovel, who is 69 and now lives in Florida, said that he started creating ocean-inspired artwork as a way to promote environmental outreach in communities, especially among children. He said a friend of his living in Niantic had first contacted him about creating artwork for the Niantic Center School exterior before later putting Kovel in touch with the town’s school district about the project.
Kovel said that after working through a series of public hearings and board meetings over the project — which he said drew much public controversy and “ridicule” — the project “ultimately prevailed,” and in 1999 he installed fish on the school's exterior, some of which he said came from the Mystic Aquarium and others, such as the jellyfish, were custom-made for the school. It took a team of volunteers to transport and install the very colorful clown, jelly and bat fish sculptures, some of which were more than 40 feet long.
“The colors to me meant joy, happiness, light, passion and therefore they mean preservation,” Kovel said.
On Friday he said he had heard that the fish were taken down and thought “it was too bad.”
“Nobody contacted me, though, and it’s a shame because I might have been able to do something at the time,” Kovel said. “They certainly could have been renewed. We had repaired parts of it before. It’s all fixable if you have the time and the will. My guess is that they just thought, ‘It’s done, so let’s take it down.’”
Kovel said he often wonders whether the fish had a lasting impact on the children who attended the Niantic Center School at the time they were installed, as they had been part of a schoolwide "Year of the Ocean" curriculum theme, and where those kids might be today.
Aside from the Niantic Center School fish, Kovel also had created other fish-inspired sculpture work shown in Mystic's Go Fish Restaurant, as well as in front of the former Café Bravo, in the late '90s while living in the region. He was also a painter, and ran a dentistry practice in Groton, according to Day archives. He frequently travels the world and creates sea-inspired jewelry, he said Friday.
But now that those murals are forever gone, the Board of Education is considering other exterior fish displays to commemorate the ones torn down. Whether that be sidewalk murals or a statute of fish, board members, who were very supportive of reviving the fish theme last month, said they would need more discussions to decide on an appropriate project, as well as needed funding.
With that in mind, Newton said at that meeting, placing other artwork on the school's exterior would not likely again be possible due to fire and safety codes.