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Steelhead Sculpture Migrates to Bike Week Art Exhibition

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A dark mantle settled over Los Angeles on a Friday night, near the end of April. Beneath the veil rippled a strange sight, a 35-foot steelhead fish skeleton sculpture swam -- glided, really -- from Burbank to Downtown Los Angeles, with nine cyclists and two support drivers in tow: Jenny Sarpolis, Aylee Rhodes, Naomi Pitcairn, Adeel Mansoor, Anna Basinski, Jennifer Vassos, Ignacio Genzon, Rob Sankey, Noel Rhodes, Doug Weiskopf, and Kreigh Hampel. It could have been an miasma created in the depths of the night, but it wasn't. It was the creation borne of generosity and ingenuity.

"The migration couldn't have happened on a more beautiful midnight. Everything went better than expected," says Hampel, a builder of boats, props and furniture. "We made it through narrow gates, over four bridges, and around obstacles."

The team thought it would take six hours to navigate 13 miles of L.A.'s streets and obstacles, but it only took them three and a half hours. "Riding in the middle of the night is like visiting a foreign land pre-congestion and population," says Hampel. "The Los Angeles River Bike Path is gorgeous at night. Los Angeles really goes into a deep sleep and you can appreciate the geography and the downstream pilgrimage with friends."

Like many places, once shrouded in darkness, the city and its riverbanks take on a stillness that makes it easy to imagine one is the lone soul in a city of millions. As the day broke, the intrepid team arrived at the Caltrans museum inside the Caltrans building on 100 South Main Street, where this migratory steelhead will be settled for the month of May in honor of Metro's Bike Week Art Show, "Color Wheels," opening May 14.

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"I found Kreigh through our original Call for Entry that we posted on the Source and social media," says Jack Moreau, coordinator for Metro in charge of Bike Week. "The Steelhead has incredible symbology towards the L.A. River, Los Angeles, and the effects of our actions. The steelhead trout was first shown to me by Lewis MacAdams who always says that when it returns to the river, we will know we have made real change. I share the goal to facilitate the return of the steelhead and it will take many more years of hard work to achieve."

This isn't the first of the steelhead's incredible journeys. Its meat and limbs all tell stories. Fourteen months ago, the sculpture was simply a spark in the minds of Rhodes and Hampel, co-conspirators who met through TreePeople. The two curious minds were simply rooting around for a new project to work on. Then, around the 2014 Los Angeles River Clean Up the two found inspiration. Why not resurrect a larger than life symbol of Los Angeles River ecology?

Using the trash, crud, and refuse hauled from the Los Angeles River during the clean up and excess plastic bottles from a 2008 Junk raft that sailed 26,000 miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii, Rhodes, Hampel, and an assembled art collective called FLOD created this one-of-a-kind steelhead whose innards are comprised of the forgotten flotilla of the city's waterways.

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What the team thought would take a few weeks, took months. When I spoke to Hampel last year, as the team was beginning their journey, he admitted, "We're making this whole thing up as we go."

The team's work is done after hours, squeezed in between deadlines and must-dos. Almost no money at all was spent in its creation. All of the steelhead's parts were cobbled together, using as much free or junk parts as possible. "I remember buying a roll of wire," recalls Hampel. Other than the roll, everything else was salvaged.
Fourteen months later, it was done with the help of many hands: Noel Rhodes, a sculptor who helped craft the steelhead's personality and posture; Patrick Dickson, a musician and ex-aeronautical engineer whose ladder and tricycle are firmly entrenched in the steelhead sculpture; Jessica Aldridge and Jack Eidt, an activist team who fiercely advocates for the environment; Jeff Jones, a teacher and avid naturalist, who spent hours assembling fish parts; Jennifer Vassos, a teacher who painted, glued and wired the fish together; Debora Zecena-Rubio, and artist and teacher who added to the fish's rib cage; Maureen Kellen Taylor, who painted the fish ribs; Paula Zimmerman, who reinforced the fish spine and structure; George Patton, who grew the bamboo and palm used in building the fish; Holly Sudduth, a set designer; and Victoria King.

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"The best part was time spent with friends who didn't question the meaning or hesitate to say yes. We were all committed to an absurd unknown. It gave way to a very creative time together," said Hampel.

Though Hampel hesitates to put meaning into their work, its appearance inspires connections between the river's ecology and the effect of human carelessness. "The steelhead portrays the relationship between animals and urban life," says Moreau. "For me, the sculpture represents the death of trout through the environmentally damaging development and the vast quantities of waste that we flush into the water ways."

Moreau says that the steelhead's creation points the way to the river's revival. "With eco-responsible culture and improved infrastructure we can revive the sullen water way," he says. The steelhead is a poignant statement to the future of the environment. "If we can restore the rivers, then we will have restored our own health and opened a very promising future for Los Angeles."

The Steelhead Sculpture will be on view at Bike Week's Color Wheels Community Art Show opening May 14, 6-9 pm, coinciding with DTLA Artwalk. Other curios will accompany the steelhead: 150-year old bicycles, paintings and piñatas. More information on Bike Week.

Photos courtesy of Rob Sankey, Anna Basinski, Noel Rhodes, and Jack Moreau

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