The stories behind the animal alphabet signs hanging from light posts on Capitol Hill - Washington Post

Finding these artful animals around Capitol Hill is as easy as ABC

You see the strangest things walking around Capitol Hill and surrounding neighborhoods: A koala playfully swinging from a lamppost; a pod of narwhals swarming around a street sign; a giant pink ant and an anteater facing off across an intersection.

The Capitol Hill Alphabet Animals, as they’re formally known, are 20 public sculptures scattered throughout the area, mounted on lights and street signs.

The project was the brainchild of Stephen Young, a Capitol Hill resident who taught his daughters the alphabet by reading street signs. (“This is D Street. D is for Dog.”) Young approached the nonprofit Capitol Hill Arts Workshop with an idea for mnemonic animal signs.

CHAW selected artists to make 10 animals come to life, with only a couple of restrictions: The sculptures had to weigh seven pounds or less, and had to be able to withstand the elements. Given a street letter, artists selected their animals. (Because of a limited number of east-west streets in the neighborhood, the Alphabet Animals also took up residence on diagonal thoroughfares, such as North Carolina Avenue SE.)

The first animals were installed in 2014. Five years later, CHAW received a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to create 10 more animals, which were to have been installed in March 2020. While that didn’t happen, they were all visible by late summer.

What makes the series compelling is the scavenger hunt-like nature of setting out to find them, and discovering parks and architecture along the way. “A big part of the animals is really the idea that you get out and walk around, and perhaps get exposed to a new part of the neighborhood that you hadn’t seen,” says Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld, who served as the project manager on both rounds of installations.

We reached out to the artists who created the sculptures to learn the stories behind each animal. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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1. Spider

Seventh Street and South Carolina Avenue SE.

I’m a sculptor, and I use blacksmithing techniques in my work because hot steel can be moved around so easily and it’s [an] inexpensive material. The idea for the forged spiderweb came from an earlier work inspired by E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” in which I incorporated the words “Some Pig.” This was praise, of course, from Charlotte the spider, trying to save the pig from slaughter. — Breon Gilleran

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2. Emu

Fifth and E streets SE.

When I think of “E” in the animal world, I think of elephants, but I felt we had enough elephant art with the Party Animals from 2002, so I wanted to do something a little different. Emus are such a great shape, and I think I remember finding an Art Deco emu-shaped brooch or something as inspiration, which kind of sealed the deal for me. I’ve done a few temporary public art projects, and it’s always so fun to see people engage with your work. In 2004, I was one of the Pandamania artists, and I had people photograph themselves dressed similarly to my panda, and I can’t tell you how much that delighted me. I lived in D.C. for over 20 years, but all of my time was in Southeast D.C. or on Capitol Hill, so it makes me really happy that part of me is still there. — Beth Baldwin

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3. Big Black Dog

Third and D streets SE.

I randomly selected “D” and then considered many “D” animals, but decided a dog would be most appropriate because they are ubiquitous on Capitol Hill. I did a site visit, took photos and Photoshopped my sculpture into the photos to determine its final appearance. I liked the openness of the space at the intersection, and thought if the dog was going to be up in the air, mounted on a light post, it should be leaping. I wanted the dog to do more than just leap and came up with the red “Ring of Fire.” A Ring of Fire has so many metaphorical connotations in music and the arts, such as the Johnny Cash song, or as used in the Robert Redford movie “All Is Lost.” It expresses overcoming fear, perseverance and transcendence. Personally, at the time I was working on the sculpture, a dear friend, who is a longtime resident of Capitol Hill, lost her black lab to old age. So when I see the sculpture, I think of my friend and her companion, Mitchie. — John Yanson

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4. Narwhals

Second Street and North Carolina Avenue SE.

There aren’t actually too many animals whose non-proper name starts with the letter “N,” so my options were narrowed down for me. I was drawn to creating narwhals because they are so unique and mysterious that I felt a sighting would stimulate interesting conversations. I chose to do the entire body, as I felt it was more descriptive and would help make the animal more recognizable. I also wanted them to appear to be swimming around the post, hence needing the entire form of the narwhal. I hope it stimulates conversations among people. I hope it brings inspiration to those that make an animal discovery in an unusual location. — Undine Brod

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5. Capitalsaurus Chasing a Falcarius

First and F streets SE.

On the Capitalsaurus Chasing a Falcarius, the animal was linked to the exact location by the discovery of dinosaur fossils [on that street in 1898]. In what is sometimes a very serious city, the project is a way to bring creativity, whimsy and delight to the city streets and passersby of all ages. I hope it makes the community enjoy their surroundings more and ask for more artwork and more beautiful buildings. — Charles Bergen

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6. Ibis

Second and I streets SE.

To make the ibis, I actually scheduled a visit to the natural history museum to look at stuffed specimens in their archives. I photographed and sketched on-site as much as possible, so I could get a grasp of the form. Translating the 2-D information into 3-D is a little bit challenging, but having that firsthand observation internalized made it a little easier to transition. For the ibis, I used old automobile license plates to sculpt the form. They are all plates from states that are street names in that neighborhood, and D.C. plates, also. — Evan Reed

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7. Ladybug

Second and L streets SE.

I first applied for the Alphabet Animals Project in 2014 because I loved the whole concept. I originally wanted S or C because they are the letters of my name, and I already had a concept for a snake made out of laundry bottles in my head. But S was not available, and when I saw the letter L — it was immediately a ladybug made out of a big red snow saucer. I planned the ladybug to be all recycled, but the DOT specifications of must “last more than five years, and weigh less than seven pounds” made the use of recycled materials very difficult. I had to upgrade most of my plastic to new material so it would survive 5 years out of doors, and also find lighter, stronger materials to achieve the weight limit. I am happy that there are 3 recycled parts of the ladybug — her head, which is a CD boombox, her antennae which are curled barbecue skewers, and her spots, which are 4 black Frisbees I found at the beach. — Sue Champeny

(Leslie Mansour)
(Leslie Mansour)

8. Viceroy Butterflies

Fourth Street and Virginia Avenue SE.

One of the mysteries of the Alphabet Animals: Where are the viceroy butterflies? While researching this project, we noticed that artist Novie Trump’s silver butterflies were no longer on the street sign, as depicted on the CHAW website. Amy Moore, the executive director of CHAW, confirmed that the butterflies “seem to have disappeared.” Virginia Avenue SE has undergone extensive construction, both for a train tunnel and a streetscape project, in recent years, and Moore wonders if they were taken down during roadwork. “Still, you’d think whoever did it would see that they were intentional and maybe would make an effort to salvage them. I guess that’s just one of the perils of public art.”

If you have any information on their whereabouts, please contact CHAW.

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9. Koala

Fourth and K streets SE.

When I applied for the first time to the CHAW project, I was in Australia on vacation, so it came naturally to me to propose a koala. I planned to have the koala installed lower than other sculptures, because I wanted to create a visual — and almost physical — contact with the public. It probably was too low, because someone stole it after a few months, and I had to replace it and place it higher! — Davide Prete

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10. CHAWmper the Grasshopper

Seventh and G streets SE.

I’ve always been interested in insects. I study their shapes and behaviors and connect them to my conceptual and aesthetical concerns. The simple and stylized shapes I chose are inspired by many years as a teaching artist for the youth arts program of Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, and influenced by my childhood visits to rural areas in my native Colombia. The fact that I often see the grasshopper, my first sculpture, across the street of the CHAW building — and have the opportunity to share it with my students on a regular basis — keeps it alive. — Carolina Mayorga

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11. Turtle

F Street Terrace and G Street SE.

At the outset, we intended to make fully three-dimensional characters but realized this wasn’t going to work with a seven-pound limit for the installed objects, so we went back to the proverbial drawing board. We settled on lightweight aluminum that would have a colorful coating. Breon had created a work for the project a couple of years ago and was very excited about the impact an uplifting sculpture could have on the Capitol Hill community. Her enthusiasm carried over to me. That fun, uplifting theme was the foundation of our collaboration and became a primary consideration throughout the design process. We wanted a colorful, fun addition to the street culture of Capitol Hill. — Mimi Frank (with Breon Gilleran)

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12. Monkeys

Seventh and M streets SE.

I liked how recognizable monkeys would be, even stylized and simplified down in the style that I work. I was also drawn to having multiple pieces on each post and I knew monkeys are social creatures, hence they would be found in groups. Having merely the monkey heads gave them a masklike quality, which I thought appropriate, given this project is taking place in D.C. where politics is a huge focus and there are a lot of people presenting themselves perhaps as something other than their true selves. — Undine Brod

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13. Emperor Penguin

12th Street and Potomac Avenue SE.

I chose to make the ibis and penguin because they are rather peculiar-looking birds and at least in my opinion, inherently whimsical. I think also birds perched on a street sign or light post just seemed like the direction to go. On the choice of making the emperor penguin instead of another variety, I think the emperor just has a quintessential penguiness about it. Maybe I was also influenced by the documentary film “March of the Penguins.” There’s an anthropomorphic quality to them that seems natural at a street intersection. Besides, residents of that neighborhood deserve the “emperor” of penguins instead of just a prince or duke. — Evan Reed

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14. Horseshoe Crab

16th and H streets SE.

I was delighted that H was available — I knew I wanted to make a horseshoe crab. I love the creatures, and they are so specific to the Chesapeake watershed. [After using recycled materials for the ladybug], I decided to work with the same material the DOT uses for signs: aluminum sheet stock. I had not done a bent metal piece since metal shop in high school, and it was wonderful to rediscover my skills in that area. The best moment in the horseshoe crab project was when I delivered the sculpture to CHAW. It was school vacation week and so the building was full of kids taking classes. I was greeted at the door by a group of 7- to 11-year-old boys, one of whom shouted “Wow! A horseshoe crab — that is my FAVORITE creature!” Their excitement and smiles was the whole reason I wanted to do the project. Hopefully the horseshoe crab creates many more smiles and lots of excitement for all ages in its new home on H and 16th streets. Maybe one day I can run a “Make a Horseshoe Crab out of a Cereal Box” workshop for kids right at the site of the sculpture. That would be a fun summertime event to celebrate the work. — Sue Champeny

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15. Honeybee

17th and Bay streets SE.

I knew that I wanted to create something with wings, especially since the sculpture would be suspended from a lamp post. Second, I wanted to pay homage to the importance of bees to the health of our ecosystems. It was important for me to consider the symbiotic relationship of the piece and the environment — and to be intentional about the meaning behind that. I was still working on the piece during the height of the pandemic and thought a lot about how public space had transformed over the course of the year — and how important it was to create something that folks could interact with outdoors and hopefully find some unexpected joy within. — Maureen Smith

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16. A Wood Thrush Wanders Washington

12th and Walter streets SE.

The wood thrush is linked to all of D.C., as it is the state bird, and I linked the artwork generally to the site by showing the monuments and cherry blossoms which are nearby. Capitol Hill has lots of cherry trees in its parks and squares. — Charles Bergen

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17. Sneaky Cat

Ninth and C streets SE.

[After making the koala,] I was interested in making a similar visual connection with the public, so I decided to create a big cat sneaking [up] on people, just like cats like to hide and pounce on their owners to welcome them. I also used a thicker material and reinforced the connection to ensure that nobody could take it down [unlike the koala]. I am really happy about these projects because they bring a smile to people’s faces as they walk the streets. It is an amazing way to personalize the neighborhoods and make them special. — Davide Prete

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18. Ant

Seventh and A streets SE.

The use of pink for the ant is part of my longtime interest in the color as a beautifying agent that, when applied, offers joy and visual gratification. The sculpture was designed to incorporate the light pole, as I wanted the animals to follow a typical crawling-up gesture.

[Regarding the placement of the ant and the anteater at the same intersection:] Beth and I decided to pair the two animals. I believe I first expressed my interest in the letter A, as I’ve used ants in many other projects. Beth liked the idea and decided to make an anteater. We both thought the idea would add a fun/funny element as both animals interact visually and conceptually. — Carolina Mayorga

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19. Anteater

Seventh and A streets SE.

I have a deep and almost pathological love of the anteater (specifically the Southern tamandua) and I even make anteater pillows from reclaimed textiles that I sell a block away at Eastern Market. I’ve been obsessed with them since there was a baby born at the National Zoo and The Post published a picture of the baby riding on its mother’s back. They just hang out up there like backpacks for the first six months of their lives, and I think they’re so cute. People often mistake my anteaters for aardvarks, and sometimes I’ll correct them and they’ll shrug and say, “Well, what’s the difference?” and I launch into a whole speech about anteaters versus aardvarks. So, to answer your unspoken question: Yes, I am super fun at parties. — Beth Baldwin

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20. Bunny

Sixth Street and Brown’s Court SE.

Breon approached me about working in collaboration on one of the letters: the letter B. We’ve always wanted to work together and she saw this as an opportunity to create a project together. I had just finished a sculpture of a bunny. Breon wanted use that bunny sculpture by making a duplicate and mounting it on a light post. Because these animals were going to be surrounded by street signs we chose to use the concept of semiotics in the design project. Our animals would be similar to another traffic sign, but with a twist. They needed to stand out among the somewhat dense street visuals. We chose sign-related, universally recognizable images that would mix with the urban signage, but would bring humor to the two sites. Breon wanted the two creatures to be fun, colorful and glittery that would set them apart from everyday signage and give them a bit of an Andy Warhol, glittery, pop art reference. — Mimi Frank (with Breon Gilleran)

Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for The Washington Post's Weekend section since 2003, but he also writes about a variety of local entertainment topics.