Turtle Meet
If you can find them, these mutant turtles shine

You’d have to have a hard shell to be a turtle in this town. Long before this public art exhibition began there were grumblings in the local community about the worth and content of the show.

Late last year, budding and professional artists were invited to submit designs for decorated turtle sculptures. Dozens of entries have been chosen to brighten up Charleston, raising awareness for the South Carolina Aquarium and its real-life turtle programs.

Turtles on the Town could be construed as one big public ad for the Aquarium, which hardly needs more promotion from the city. It could also be an indicator of Charleston’s one-step-behind artistic taste; many cities around the world have held similar public art shows over the past ten years, with fiberglass cows proving particularly popular.

We already have a decorated cow in West Ashley, a cheerful addition to a drab stretch of Highway 17. Are the turtles any less commercial because they’re intended to raise money for the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rescue program? Or because independent artists have painted them? Are they more aesthetically valuable because they stray from product-placement colors like the Coburg cow’s chocolate or eggnog?

The answer to all those questions is yes, but only because a few smart artists have taken the simple concept and added a very distinctive stamp to their sculptures. “Viva Las Tortugas Marinas” on King Street is a fiesta of Mexican patterns and colors by Brenda Gilliam. The title runs along the edge of the shell, green waves swirl across the loggerhead form and blue baby turtles are connected to their parent’s back with slim rods. The sense of fun suits the turtle’s location at Fish Restaurant.

“Turtle Van Gogh” on Wentworth is another sculpture that’s imaginative but not overwhelming. Taking “Starry Night” as its starting point, the piece shows a Rainbow Row of houses round the edge of the shell and a swirled-together sun, moon, and clouds in the centre. A palmetto tree has its roots in one hind flipper, and everything’s shown from a clever aerial perspective. This turtle’s bright purple head, red beak and belly make it the most phallic piece of public art we’ve seen since a cock-shaped creature was placed in I’ON a couple of years back. Its closed eyes and long eyelashes give it an extra look of fey content.

The turtles are placed on sidewalks in forecourts or on the premises of institutions like Charleston Museum. That one’s behind bars, looking like it’s doing time for bad behavior. It’s called “Our State Symbol,” carrying a South Carolina-shaped land mass on its back with the state bird, tree, flower, fish, etc. — shame on you if you don’t know what they are. Artist Rachel Mahaffey connotes the Native-American folk tales that describe the world resting on the back of a giant sea turtle.

Not all of the turtles are perfectly decorated. Janine McCabe’s “Soaring” at the College of Charleston seems rushed and slightly messy. It’s also tough to find some of them, and this hasn’t been helped by the tortoise-paced rollout of the show. On opening day, the official maps hadn’t been printed and some of the sculptures hadn’t arrived. But as an exercise in lightening up the city and providing new spaces for artists to show their work, Turtles is a modest success.

Turtles on the Town • Piccolo Spoleto • Free • On view through June 10 • Turtle maps available at S.C. Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf • 720-1990