A Fish Out of Order

UPDATE June 13, 2017: They’re baaaack! After months of repairs & maintenance, East Falls’ fish plates return to their spot under the Twin Bridges. 

All spruced up like new, the plates have been sand-blasted, straightened, and strengthened by sculptor Steven Sears. He even powder-coated them this time! “It’s harder than paint, and should last another 20 years, ” he explained.

The fish names, too, are much crisper and easier to read now, thanks to a special kind of vinyl lettering that’s unbelievably strong. “It’s the same stuff they use on airplanes,” Sears told us, “It holds tight at -30 degrees and 600 mph!” Whatever our wacky Philly weather piles on, these plates have been reinforced to take it in stride.

Hopefully, it’ll be a long time before he’s called out here again. We certainly don’t want another repeat of what brought them down last year.

Original post March 24, 2017:

Repairing the damage to an iconic East Falls art installation.

History buffs in the Falls might have noticed something missing on Kelly Drive beneath the Twin Bridges – the “Five Fishes” art installation, installed in 1995 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Falls Bridge, has been temporarily removed for repairs.


It was damaged in a fatal car accident in April 2016 that also destroyed the informational sign that stood in front of it.

Sculptor and metal fabricator Steve Sears, who created the original work, visited the Falls in mid February and removed the iron sculptures from the wall. He was amazed that after 20 years, the pieces were still so firmly anchored that some of the bolts had to be cut to remove them.

He wasn’t as surprised that rust had accumulated on the metal beams that supported the sculptures. “The river floods quite often near them, just like down at Waterworks Park.”

Sears has had plenty of experience at the Waterworks, having installed metal signs in the 90s that represent the history of the Schuylkill River as part of the “Water for the City” public art installation in the Park. “It’s basically metal plaques with logos from all the companies that used to pollute the river before Fairmount Park was purchased to protect the river, which was the city’s water supply too.”

Sears believes it’s this “awakening to history” that occurred in the 1990s at the Waterworks that led directly to the Five Fishes sculpture in East Falls.

“Somebody in the East Falls Development Corporation’s board had seen the plaques and contacted me. They wanted something artistic to represent the Falls. An architect on the committee also was the one who suggested the idea of cutting the fish shapes out of iron plaques. You could then see the river through those cutouts, which I thought was brilliant. Creating them was pretty easy after that.”

Fixing them seems pretty easy to Sears too. “It’s going to require some sandblasting and cutting out of weakened metal to get them back up to speed,” he said. “We’ll also need to cut and replace the beam that was bent during the car accident.” (The one that held up the Smallmouth Bass plaque.)

Instead of a new coat of paint, they’ll use powder coating this time. “It’s supposedly harder than paint and should last at least another 20 years,” he said. “And you won’t need to worry about new vinyl lettering. The kind of vinyl they use these days is unbelievably good – it’s the same stuff they use on airplanes. That stuff holds on at -30 degrees and 600 miles an hour so it won’t be a problem on a sign by the river. It’ll last a very long time.”

So far, Sears has sand blasted the beams that hold the signs and powder coated the signs themselves. The font for the sign lettering will be Times New Roman Bold, according to the EFDC’s Carolyn Sutton. (If you don’t like it, you can go to Helvetica, ha!)

What’s next for the sculptures? The EFDC intends to have some sort of public re-dedication ceremony when the Fish are ready for reinstallation. In the meantime, they will be brainstorming ways to raise funds to redesign and install the informational sign that was destroyed in the car accident.

If you’d like to help with the effort, contact Gina Snyder at 215-848-8084.

About Steve Sears
Sears studied as a sculptor at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1969 he set up his own studio. Over the years, the shop fabricated large pubic sculptures for artists like Phil Simpkin, Robin Fredenthal, Bob Engman, and John Mathews. His team has also built several architectural projects at the Waterworks and around center city.

He describes the work he does now as “on the edge of art — we do a lot of blacksmith work, some of it is very much our design.” Sears also teaches several short blacksmith courses every year.

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