NEWBURYPORT — There comes a time when every artist hits a wall. For Jeff Briggs, that creative roadblock was this: He did not know how to draw the face of a humble fish.
Briggs’s task is to create the characters that will populate a Boston-themed carousel planned for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Instead of the usual horses, riders will sit atop replicas of such iconic local fauna as a right whale, a harbor seal, and that staple of New England cuisine, the Atlantic cod. The indigenous animals, Greenway officials hope, will make the carousel a signature element of the still-developing park.
Briggs, a Newburyport artist who has decorated custom carousels for 25 years, prides himself on his ability to sculpt animals that are both anatomically
realistic and fun to look at. But they must also be easy to hop on and ride, with no sharp edges that pinch or cut. Neither they nor their riders should bump into the other creatures as they merrily go round. Creating them involves a complex process that Briggs mastered long ago.
But cod . . . Though he had seen it breaded, broiled, and roasted, the artist had never sat across a table from a live one.
So he studied the fish for three days. He learned that codfish are bottom feeders, with skin that covers their gills while they feed, lending the effect of a mouth that is double-hinged.
“But I could see none of those things in an actual photograph because no one really photographs cod,” Briggs said. “I couldn’t figure out how it went together.”
So he and his wife of 42 years, Lindley, bought one.
“We took photographs,” Jeff Briggs said, as he demonstrated the completed carousel codfish in the driveway of his orange-and-purple house on a quiet Newburyport street. “And then we ate the codfish.”
Art demands sacrifice.
A similar fate befell a live lobster Briggs purchased so he could study the crustacean’s armor, which is covered with a multitude of bumpy, sharp, protective features. In real life, lobsters are not meant to be ridden.
The one Briggs fashioned, despite its claws and spiny bits, offers as smooth a ride as any merry-go-round mare.
“And the lobster was delicious,” he said.
The inspiration for a new carousel with local flavor came from an anonymous donor who ponied up $1.6 million to replace the seasonal rental currently operated across from Faneuil Hall Marketplace by a New Hampshire-based company, according to Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.
The projected $2.95 million price tag for the project, which includes landscaping and the installation of a honey locust grove where the new carousel will stand, has drawn criticism, especially after Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said it was time for the Greenway “to wean itself off government support.”
The conservancy has so far raised an additional $600,000, Brennan said. Of that, she said, $250,000 was a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The rest of the money came from private donors who want their gifts to be put toward a carousel, she said, as will the donations the conservancy is currently trying to raise. Brennan said the new carousel, scheduled to open next summer, is projected to bring in more revenue and provide a bigger draw for families than the current one.
To choose the characters, the conservancy turned to a carousel’s most likely client base: third- and fourth-graders from four Boston schools. The kids offered colorful drawings of sea monsters, whales, sea turtles, seals, and lobsters, but also grasshoppers, butterflies, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, and falcons.
It all made sense. A grasshopper sits atop Fanueil Hall, and butterflies teem on the harbor islands. Peregrine falcons make their nests in the buildings along the Greenway, and critters rummage through backyards throughout the region. The New England Aquarium is home to harbor seals and a sea turtle named Myrtle. All the conservancy needed was an artist to render these creatures into carousel rides.
They heard about Briggs, who has decorated and designed carousels on four continents, including one in Finland featuring Lapland deer and sleighs, and another in Detroit, where egrets and sturgeon mingle with the mythical River Mermaid and River Monster.
“He was recommended over and over as someone who was creative and easy to work with,” said Linda Jonash, conservancy director of planning and design. “It turned out he was right here in Newburyport.”
Briggs starts with a floor plan. The carousel will be 36 feet across with three concentric rows of figures. For them to work together, the outside pieces have to be 5 feet long, the middle rows 4 feet 6 inches, and the inner rows 44 inches.
Using dozens of photographs and drawings that show the animals from different perspectives, Briggs draws the individual characters, first as sketches and then in full-sized renditions. He divides up the drawings the way a butcher might do with cuts of beef, and fashions pieces of plywood to fit each section. He builds the pieces into a skeleton and covers the frame with plaster, into which he sculpts the animals’ features.
Briggs then sends the completed models to a company that makes a rubber mold and uses it to produce a sturdy copy of polyester-fiberglass resin — the piece that will be used on the carousel. Briggs creates a color scheme, and William Rogers, a painter who lives in Haverhill, finishes the job.
The process requires some compromises with anatomical correctness. Briggs smooths out beaks and claws so riders don’t get pinched, stabbed, or stuck.
The Greenway carousel will have three butterflies on the inside row; to make the wings visible, Briggs designed them to fold straight up instead of spread out, as they would be during a real butterfly’s flight.
The desires of the young artists also had to be taken into account. The children wanted the pole on the carousel rendition of the whale to look like a single spout, so Briggs’s right whale has the wrong number of blowholes: In real life, the giant cetacean has two, not one.
The conservancy did not want fantasy creatures, which created a problem when the children submitted a drawing of a sea monster. Briggs’s solution: the oarfish, a dweller of the deep that looks like a cross between a grouper and an eel and can grow more than 40 feet long, he said.
“Most of the legends about monster fish over the millennia are actually oarfish,” Briggs said. His “monster” is wrapped around a boat-shaped gondola, as though the creature were about to drag it down to Davy Jones’s Locker. “You try to catch the character of the animal itself,” he said.
The cod was not the only animal whose features Briggs struggled to capture. He could not figure out how to do the squirrel until he found a dead one to photograph and study.
Art demands sacrifice.
It also demands discretion.
Briggs was stumped by the proper rendering of another animal. At one point, he was driving past a dead skunk and “had this great desire to stop and pick the thing up,” he said. “But I decided to stick to drawings.”