Visit a restaurant on Cape Cod, and you might notice a school of fish swimming across the wall. Maybe there’s a school circling the lights up above. Metal sculptor Steve Swain may just have also designed the restaurant. Swain’s designs can be seen all over the Cape; his unique fish swim through buildings, giving a room the perfect touch of Cape Cod charm, each one crafted and cared for from the moment of inception until it’s placed on a wall, or around a light, or anywhere else one might want a fish.
“I went to UMass Amherst for art and I received a degree in design and my minor was metal sculpture. I did a lot of metal work and metal sculpture in the studios at UMass, it’s where I really got my start,” Swain says of his beginnngs in metalworking. “I’ve worked on metal sculpture along with my architectural design since the mid 80s. I found the metalwork was making its way into the architectural designs I was doing, designing and building restaurants, so I started incorporating it more into the restaurants.” The transition from restaurant designer/ builder to metalworker and gallery owner was a surprisingly smooth one. While working on PEARL Restaurant & Bar in Wellfleet, Swain and his wife came upon a building that would change the course of their lives. “My last design/build project was PEARL in 2007, and a building on the property, which is now our current gallery, was boarded up for decades and at risk of being torn down, so I sort of adopted it, renovated it and tried to keep it authentic. I decided to sell some of my work there and it just took over,” he says. “We didn’t go into the PEARL project intending to open a gallery, it was more that we ended up with the building. The primary objective was really to save the building because it was the last intact oyster shack in Wellfleet; it used to just be all oyster shacks in the harbor area. They were slowly demolished over the years and this was the last one. Once we started getting into saving it, I started thinking, ‘this place would be a perfect spot for an art gallery.’” The Frying Pan Gallery now represents approximately 20 artists and recently expanded to a second location in Orleans, currently operated as a winter location.
“The schools of fish came about from a design I did when building PEARL, the wall sconces specifically, and a hanging lamp over the hostess station by the front door. Then, Philippe at PB Boulangerie noticed them and asked if I could do more of that motif in the restaurant that he was building at the same time, where I also built the bar. That kind of started the movement of the schools of fish. And it’s just been non-stop with ever since. It grew into selling them in larger schools and then doing custom installations and incorporating other pieces of my art into the installations,” Swain says of the success of his fish. “I’ve also worked it out so the pieces are expandable. I tell people they can purchase some today but if later on they want to expand their shcool, they easily can. One of the things I always tell people is that if you start a school, at Christmas time or on your birthday, when people ask you what you want, you can say ‘I want more fish for my school’ and you can keep growing it. Some people come into the gallery and tell me ‘we visit Wellfleet once a year, every summer and when we come, we get a school of seven fish and add it to our school when we get home.’ They are in a state of flux.”
There’s a little more to the little fish than meets the eye. These aren’t schools of just any fish, they are menhaden, also known locally as pogy or bunker. These little fish hold a special place in Cape Cod history specifically; the Wampanoag people would use menhaden as fertilizer to grow corn. Swain has his own connection to menhaden as well. “Before I had children I was a boat captain and I did a lot of offshore boat deliveries. In 2004 I started a job sailing a boat around the world,” he explains, “We did a lot of diving, fishing and exploring in the Caribbean and South Pacific, and the schools of fish swim in what’s called a bait ball, where they form into a moving sphere to protect themselves. I witnessed it quite a bit exploring underwater and it’s really quite beautiful. And before even that, I’ve fished recreationally my whole life and have seen plenty of menhaden schooling.” When he’s not sculpting, running the gallery or working on his boat, Swain works on the Board of Directors for a group in Virginia, the Menhaden Defenders, whose goal is to end overharvesting of using these fish for the reduction industry. – Elizabeth Shaw
Visit Steve and his gallery online at fryingpangallery.com