Sheldon displays whimsical sculpture in garden

MIDDLEBURY— The Henry Sheldon Museum of Middlebury, Vt., has expanded its current bicycle exhibit “Pedaling Through History” from its interior galleries and historic rooms to the outside period flower garden with the installation of “Fish on a Bike,” a fanciful, masterful metal sculpture by Martin McGowan of Newark, Vt. McGowan, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, conceived the idea for the sculpture from the feminist saying “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” often misattributed to Gloria Steinem, but authored by Patricia Irene (Irina) Dunn (born 1948), an Australian writer, social activist and filmmaker.
The phrase, subsequently popularized by Gloria Steinem, became a favorite slogan among feminists. Later, U2 used the phrase as a lyric in their song “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World:”
Nothin’ much to say I guess
Just the same as all the rest
Been trying to throw your arms around the world
And a woman needs a man
Like a fish needs a bicycle
When you’re tryin’ to throw your arms around the world
McGowan created the sculpture from multiple pieces of metal, many of which he fabricated together with found objects to include the forks from a Harley Davidson motorcycle and vintage Pontiac and Plymouth automobile hubcaps. He further describes the other sculptural components, all heightening its artistic impact as the steel is oxidized by natural components:
“Antique wheelbarrow wheels and a vintage tractor seat. The goldfish sides are an old cement mixer; the handle bars are from a porter cable rototiller — that’s a weird one that I don’t know the history on, but I love old signage. The fish’s mouth is fashioned of two old railroad frogs designed to hold the track together from my friend Tim’s family, who were life-time railroad workers from Island Pond, so he knew what they were called. The base is a grate from an old barrel wood furnace. History fascinates me, but I must be honest I only know the origin of some of the items in my vast metal pile. I am getting old enough now I am becoming a relic myself.”
Residing and working from a rural setting at the northern tip of Caledonia County, McGowan spreads his talents as an artist, welder, carpenter and teacher. He delights in the latter encouraging students over the years from kindergarten to college, with stints at Lyndon State College and the Riverside School in Lyndonville, Burke Town School and King George School in Sutton.
“Fish on a Bike,” situated along the sidewalk in the heart of the village of Middlebury, has been subject to much commentary. Its title helps to reinforce the impact the bicycle had on women’s liberation, as articulated by suffragist Susan B. Anthony in 1896:
“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”
Taking another approach is Anneke Oranje, Sheldon Museum supporter and member of the Middlebury Garden Club, who helps maintain the flower beds of the park where the sculpture is situated. Following a teaching career in the Netherlands, Oranje became a bike tour guide, pedaling through Europe with an international clientele. She soon met an American cyclist on tour, whom she later married, eventually settling with him in Middlebury. She celebrates the combined social and liberating aspects of cycling.
Regardless of the title of the sculpture, most viewers extol McGowan for his inventive, sophisticated welding skills coupled with his humorous, ingenious, visionary imagination, all resulting in “Fish on a Bike.”
The sculpture and exhibit “Pedaling through History: 150 Years of the Bicycle, the Glenn Eames Collection” are on view at the Henry Sheldon Museum through Oct. 16. The Henry Sheldon Museum is located at One Park Street in downtown Middlebury across from the Ilsley Library. Museum hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday (through Oct. 16) 1-5 p.m. Research Center hours: Thursday and Friday 1-5 p.m. or by appointment. Admission to the museum is $5 adults; $3 youth (6-18); $4.50 seniors; $12 family; $5 research center.

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