The youth who can capture a selfie with all 10 shark sculptures can a win prize package from Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.

VENICE — To mark its 25th anniversary, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation is giving its host city 10 opportunities to spark a sense of imagination and wonder — in the form of bronze shark sculptures.


The sculptures, crafted by Bronzart Foundry in Sarasota, were strategically placed in the Venice island downtown district, bounded on the east by Tamiami Trail, the west by Harbor Drive, the north by Tampa Avenue and the south by Miami Avenue.


The city of Venice accepted that gift Thursday morning, at a ceremony hosted near the Interactive Children’s Fountain in Centennial Park at 200 W. Venice Ave. that included a talk by Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the center for Shark research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.


"Sharks play a very important role in our ecosystem," Hueter said. "They are the top predators, they are the balance keepers.


"They are the lions and wolves of the sea and without sharks, our oceans are out of balance — with sharks we have a healthy ecosystem and our oceans are in balance."


Venice Mayor Ron Feinsod noted that the installation will bring more culture into the city.


"Parents are going to bring their kids, grandparents are going to bring their grandkids and hopefully those kids will bring their children and their grandchildren back to Venice," Feinsod said. "This is the type of thing that makes Venice such a special place, so unique on the Gulf Coast and such a wonderful city for us all to enjoy."


Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, purposely wanted to spread the shark sculptures around the district to give those who wish to search out all 10 an opportunity to explore the neighborhood.


"I don’t think there’s another city in the country that offers a shark spotting adventure that also educates and acquaints visitors and residents with our downtown merchants," Thaxton said.


The idea was inspired by Mice on Main in Greenville, South Carolina, an interactive exhibit of nine mice placed strategically around that city that he encountered during an inter-city trip sponsored by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce several years ago.


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The Mice on Main made their debut in Greenville in August 2008, a gift from that city’s Metropolitan Arts Council.


"People love it, they love the concept," said Molly Marrett, a sales coordinator at Visit GreenvilleSC — that city’s version of Visit Sarasota County. "It’s unique to Greenville, so we get a lot of positive comments about it.


"The kids go crazy over it, they’re super excited to find all the mice," she added.


Thaxton found his first mouse outside a coffee shop, then a second, third and fourth until he asked about the mice and was told about how the mouse trail was conceived as part of a high school senior project inspired by "Goodnight Moon," a children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown.


"I never read the book, I didn’t know anything about it," said Thaxton, who also happens to enjoy a good walk. "But by the time I left, I had found eight of the nine mice and had a really good time doing it.


"Here I am, a grown man, getting a kick out of walking around a Main Street downtown, finding these little statues," he added. "I thought what a clever idea, what a great way to build a sense of place."


Thaxton thought about similar trails with sharks in Venice, sea horses in Sarasota and bobcats in North Port as ways to build place but back-burnered the idea until it became time to brainstorm a way to celebrate Gulf Coast’s 25th anniversary and the foundation board decided to commission the gift to Venice.


The sharks species chosen are blacktip, bonnethead, bull, hammerhead, lemon, Megalodon, nurse, sandbar, snaggletooth and tiger.


All, including the now extinct megalodon and snaggletooth sharks, at one time lived in area waters.


The two extinct sharks were chosen on purpose.


"We wanted to offer an opportunity to tell yet another story, of extinction — that it’s very real and it can happen," Thaxton said.


Hueter later noted that the reason the eight species currently living in area waters is because of diversity, with diversity building richness.


The two extinct sharks — megalodon and snaggletooth — outgrew the ecosystem.


"They got too big, they ran out of natural resources, they didn’t adapt to climate change, so they became unsustainable and they went extinct," Hueter said. "So, ladies and gentlemen, sharks can teach us some interesting lessons — diversity promotes richness in our community and if you get too big, run out of natural resources and become unsustainable, you go extinct.


"So let’s not do that."


A main goal of the installation is to spur those on the trail to learn about the value of sharks in the marine ecosystem, Thaxton said, and he envisions area teachers devising assignments around researching habits of the different shark types.


"We want to educate people about the value and the beauty of these magnificent sea creatures," Thaxton said. "That’s been one of my driving things all along, to dispel this myth that these are some sort of voracious man killers they’re not."


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He admitted that a general fascination about sharks played a part too.


"Sharks were cool when I was a kid and sharks are still cool," Thaxton said.


While a plaque describing the "Venice Shark Spotting" gift from Gulf Coast is located near the children’s fountain and serves as the nominal start of the trail, no other descriptions accompany the bronze sculptures.


That’s intentional, Thaxton said. The minimalist displays can be enjoyed on their own, or organizations like Venice MainStreet and the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce can include them in scavenger hunts, and schools can include them in curriculum.


"We want them to participate and be active in bringing the sharks to life," Thaxton said. "We’re only bound by our own imagination, in terms of activation."


While some sharks are placed near areas with special meaning — such as the bull shark, which is near a financial institution, Thaxton is discouraging any additional signs.


"That’s going to clutter," he said. "The simplicity is what makes them special.


"They’re not overdone; it’s very tasteful," Thaxton said. "Every one of them are creative works of art."


Stevan Kuyper, one of three artists who worked on the sharks, said the original sculptures are made out of oil clay. After that, silicone molds are made around the clay. Those molds are used to make a wax replica. That wax replica is covered with an "investment shell" that’s formed out of liquid and sand. The wax is then heated away, leaving a negative impression that is finally used to cast the bronze statue.


Those statues are sandblasted and polished with pads. The sculptures are heated and the artists create a patina by applying various elements like Ferric and Liver of Sulfur by hand with a paintbrush or by airbrush. The application of those elements causes a reaction in the metal that can be most easily seen in the tiger shark.


Time will tell if future art students will study that aspect of the sculptures and postulate how the pieces were created and can best be recreated.


Again, the hope is that the sculptures will spur creative thought in the community.


Or, Thaxton added, if "they want to enjoy the art for the sake of their sculptures and the sake of the spotting, then that’s just fine."