Columbus takes a back seat to no city when it comes to public art. Dozens of sculptures, paintings and other forms of art can be seen simply by walking or driving around town.
Most of them are included on an extensive list of local public art drawn up by Richard McCoy of Landmark Columbus that is available on Wikipedia, and some of them are pretty darned famous.
Many have fitting names worthy of their stature in the art world — Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” Dessa Kirk’s “Eos,” Jean Tinguely’s “Chaos I,” Dale Chihuly’s “Yellow Neon Chandelier,” Ruth Migdal’s “Flamenco” …. And speaking of art with classical names, let us not forget “Big-Mouthed Bass” by C.F. Schiefer.
It’s quite possible that only a few folks around here are familiar with the name “Big-Mouthed Bass” used in the context of public art. Actually, there probably aren’t too many who know that we have a statue of a leaping fish in our midst.
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But such a statue does, indeed, exist, smack dab in the middle of a fountain on the lawn of the Bartholomew County Courthouse. It’s been there for 36 years. McCoy’s list of public art in Columbus is extensive but don’t bother looking for “Big-Mouthed Bass.” It’s not there.
The origins of the statue are well-documented through stories in the files of The Republic. It was intended as a capstone for the circular fountain that was originally sponsored by the Mudlarks Garden Club of Bartholomew County and donated to the county in 1976. It was built in conjunction with the county’s observance of the bicentennial celebration of the United States.
Somewhere along the line, members of the club determined there needed to be a finishing touch put on the fountain. They elected to go with the limestone likeness of a big fish sometime in 1980. It was not the current rendition of the leaping, big-mouthed bass.
“I don’t know if it was the official name given by the artist, but once we looked at the statue that was originally put in place, everybody called it the ‘Big Bass,’ recalled Jacque Chambers, long-standing member of the Mudlarks. “Actually, it just looked like a big fish lying on the ground.”
Its creator was Charles F. Schiefer of Martinsville, a well-known Hoosier sculptor who had established a statewide reputation for his renditions that often involved various forms of wildlife. The “Big Bass” that was just lying there was actually part of a competition staged by the Mudlarks to choose a centerpiece for the fountain. Several other artists participated as well, vying for a commission authorized by the club.
Schiefer submitted two entries, one the limestone big bass just lying there and the second a sketch of a much livelier fish leaping out of the water.
The competition was determined by members of the public who voted for their favorite with pennies. Schiefer’s sketch of the lively fish was the easy winner. “There was no way we were going to keep that fish that was just lying there,” Chambers recalled.
Admittedly, there is some question as to whether the name “Big-Mouthed Bass” is an official title like “Eos” or “Flamenco.” However in a caption of a photo taken of the 1980 judging competition, Schiefer’s winning work was identified in quotes as the “Big-Mouthed Bass.”
While the artistic value of “Big-Mouthed Bass” is subject to debate, it certainly belongs on a roll call of public art in Columbus. Incidentally, Schiefer’s fascination with wildlife was often reflected in his work.
In 1982 The Republic reported that he was awarded first place in a competition staged during the Driftwood Valley’s Fair on the Square for a work of art titled “Lizard on a Rock.”
So far as anyone knows, that one did not stay in Columbus.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.