Susan Jamieson, the force behind the Go Fish! project, makes her vision of public art here a ubiquitous reality. 

The Fish Lady

What's up with the fish?" a customer asked the clerk at an area Exxon station last week. He pointed to a 5-foot mosaic sculpture suspended on a pole at the corner of Fitzhugh and Malvern avenues. The clerk counted back the man's change without looking up, as if she'd answered the question before. "It's been there more than a week," she explained, "as part of some citywide art project, you know, like the mermaids in Norfolk."

The red glimmering rockfish, its head and tail curling inward, looks from the filling station like a giant bulbous boomerang frozen in midair. The fish seems to point directly to the front of the Robert E. Lee Council's Boy Scouts of America building.

The man thanked the clerk and stared hard at the fish as he walked to his car to leave.

Its brass compass eye, and inlaid fly hook and Swiss Army knife had lured a group of Governor's School students to take an even closer look.

These days, fish are to Richmond what cows were to Chicago two summers ago - ubiquitous and playful reminders that art is for everybody. If you haven't gotten the message yet, you've either been snoozing or you haven't checked them out for yourself. For months, dozens of newspaper articles and the local television stations have alerted Richmonders to Go Fish!, the city's largest ever outdoor public art exhibit, on display around town this summer.

But, throughout the fanfare, the project's biggest proponent has kept, quite humbly and by choice, out of the picture.

Early in May, the first of nearly 200 rockfish sculptures, tributes to the resurgence of the fish in the James River, started popping up everywhere from the James Center to Westover Hills, Carytown to the Canal Walk. Nearly 80 schools, businesses, individuals and nonprofit organizations paid anywhere from $500 to $2,500 to sponsor a fish, and up to $10,000 for a five-fish "school" of the creatures. And more than 150 artists — including Michael Graves who designed the fish for the Council for America's First Freedom — signed on to embellish them. When the sculptures are plucked from the city in September the groups can opt to keep the fish or auction them off to benefit charity.

But these faux denizens of the deep might not have made their debut here if it hadn't been for the seemingly relentless fervor of local art enthusiast, Susan Jamieson.

It all started two years ago when Jamieson, 36, owner of Bridget Beari Designs, took a trip to Chicago with her husband, John. City leaders there had taken an art-exhibit idea born in Zurich, Switzerland, the year before and localized it in hopes of bolstering tourism and trade. That summer, Chicago's Cows on Parade attracted an additional 1 million visitors and $2 million in spending to the city. But more than that, Jamieson, a Richmond native and alumna of Collegiate School and the College of William and Mary, thought the life-size artful cow renderings were cool. Public art, she says, was the talk of the town.

So she came home and pitched to her friends at 1708 Gallery the idea of launching a similar program here. The Gallery's steering committee took the bait. And before she knew it, the petite soft-spoken, Shar-Pei-loving interior designer had agreed to head up the effort.

Within months, Jamieson was honing her people skills to solicit necessary support from city leaders and civic boosters — and she got that support, with many groups contributing $5,000 apiece in seed money. Still, she had no idea then that to land 200 giant epoxy fish smack dab in the city would require not dozens but hundreds and hundreds of hours and helping hands. But Jamieson's gift for seeing light and space and color where a less sensitive observer sees only fish spawned believers in an otherwise improbable project.

"You either get it or you don't," she simply says about the fish. And from the girlish smile, that at times she seems to want to stop but can't, it's clear Jamieson gets it.

And those who knew Jamieson before Go Fish! or have come to know her, appear to get it, too. It's why, in certain circles, she's called the fish lady.

People say she's meticulous, easy to work with, a different brand of philanthropist, and brilliant. But, most of all, they say she's Richmond's ambassador for public art.

"You're always going to have challenges when you bring together professional artists and others to work on a project," says Lucy Meade, director of business development for Richmond Renaissance and a member of the Go Fish! marketing committee. "But what Susan's done is heighten awareness of art in the community and the talent that's right here in Richmond. She's a great leader," extols Meade.

Nobody knows this more than Katie Adams Parrish, the event coordinator for Go Fish! For months, Jamieson and Parrish have worked side by side tackling some of the most cumbersome jobs. They've hauled huge boards displaying the Go Fish! concept to businesses and organizations from Main Street to Innsbrook. When sponsor support was lagging in October, Jamieson and Parrish devised a gimmick. They dressed in fisherman's garb and grabbed Iggy and Fish N Chips, the two prototype fish, stocked up on gummi fish and worms and Goldfish crackers and plopped themselves by the fountain in Shockoe Slip at lunchtime.

"There's always stuff going on that can't seem to wait," says Parrish. When they're not together, she says, they're constantly on the phone. "The first word out of our mouths is trauma," Parrish says amusedly, about having to readjust when plans go awry. During a recent phase of the installation, they were told that only six of the requested 36, 250-pound concrete bases would be ready on time. "The second word is panic," adds Parrish with a laugh. Moments like that one, Parrish says, seemed colossal. But Jamieson's laid-back approach to everything, even disaster, helped lend calm to the project.

Sometime this summer, Jamieson expects Richmond's Go Fish! exhibit will be featured on "The Today Show." One fish, Toro, has been dispatched to Chicago as part of its "City Critters" exhibit. The follow-up to Cows on Parade features sculptures of creatures from cities throughout the country that reinterpreted Chicago's cow idea. Fish fans here can also look forward to a Go Fish! map, memorabilia and a book.

"We'd like the whole summer to be a fish theme," says Jamieson. You'd think she'd be sick of the fish and the puns by now. Instead, she talks about the one she's waiting to buy at the auction in October. She's already picked out a spot for it in her garden. And she's not about to say which one it is. That's part of the fun, she says, with a look that makes you curious. "Everybody knows I'm the fish lady," she says

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