Artist Casey Riordan and her aquatic familiar, Shark Girl.
Shark Girl poses with one of her many human familiars.

Shark Girl

Field review by the editors.

Buffalo, New York

"When I was in my late twenties I started having panic attacks," said Casey Riordan, a Cincinnati-based artist. "I thought I was losing my mind." Casey recalled a similar irrational fear from her childhood -- that she would be eaten by a shark in a swimming pool -- and sketched Shark Girl, an Alice in Wonderland figure with the head of a great white shark. "She was like my little visual panic attack," Casey said.

An early version of Shark Girl, as a cake topper.
An early version of Shark Girl, as a cake topper.

Shark Girl was turned into drawings and sculptures by Casey over the next few years, but she remained Casey's personal spirit-animal until the summer of 2013. Then, with some arts funding, Casey created a life-size fiberglass Shark Girl, sitting on a fiberglass rock, overlooking the Ohio River. "She was mournful," said Casey. "People were supposed to sit with her and be depressed. A real Pity Party." But within hours, someone had picked up the sculpture and shifted it to a more photo-friendly spot. Casey was surprised; people liked being with Shark Girl. "I said to myself, 'I'm not messing with this.'"

Despite Shark Girl's unexpected public approval, the Cincinnati Parks Department still viewed her as temporary art. Plans were underway to evict her when Casey got a call from Aaron Ott at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. He was looking for new public art, and he knew about Shark Girl. "He said, 'Can you make us one?'" Casey recalled. "And I said, 'How about this one?'"

Casey Riordan explains Shark Girl's origins.
Casey Riordan explains Shark Girl's origins.

Shark Girl arrived in Buffalo on August 26, 2014. She was again supposed to be temporary: an experiment to draw people to the city's new downtown Canalside district. "We set her down, I walked back to the truck, and when I turned around someone was already sitting with her," said Aaron. "I couldn't believe it. I was, like, 'Oh my God; it works!'"

Unlike Cincinnati, Buffalo realized the appeal of Shark Girl, deep-sixed her temporary status, and made her a permanent Canalside resident. "These days it's hard to get a consensus on anything," Aaron said. "So when the public agrees that something is awesome, it's kind of wild." Shark Girl made appearances on local newscasts, and on the Jumbotron at area sports stadiums -- a first for a piece of modern public art in Buffalo. Cars carried bumper stickers that read, "Yeah, but my city's got Shark Girl." "People were making their own Shark Girl Halloween costumes," said Aaron. "We had families sending us Shark Girl holiday cards."

Shark Girl makes new friends year-round.
Shark Girl makes new friends year-round.

There's a spot on Shark Girl's rock for you.
There's a spot on Shark Girl's rock for you.

Casey was delighted by Shark Girl's many unsanctioned tributes, ranging from coloring books to crappy t-shirts. "It's way more interesting than the work I make about her," Casey said. "I keep track of all the tattoos; there are tons of them." Casey recalled that when her attorney wanted to send a cease-and-desist letter to the manufacturer of Shark Girl Nail Polish, she placed an order first. "Please stop making this, but send me six bottles."

Why do people love a statue of a sad little girl with a shark head? "I think it's difficult for her to make friends," Aaron said. "Shark Girl is kind of lonely until you sit next to her." Casey, who knows Shark Girl better than anyone, agrees. "She likes it," Casey said, "because she needs it."

Shark Girl, the former temporary Cincinnati artwork, is now expected to endure years of Buffalo weather and the embrace of countless hugs. In October 2019 she was sent back to Cincinnati for restoration and reinforcement work under Casey's supervision. It took 19 months -- and 10 coats of new paint -- before Shark Girl returned to Buffalo in May 2021. "She was never designed for 20,000 people a year to sit on that rock," said Aaron. "But even if the art gets beat up a little, it's with love. That's the best reason to have to maintain a project."

We asked Casey if Shark Girl's popularity might lead her to future panic attacks, spawned by the frustration of an artist defined by a single work. "As an artist I'm happy to have any recognition," Casey said. "If Shark Girl ends up being my whole career, if I'm Alec Guinness she's my Obi-Wan Kenobi, then, heck yeah, man. I'm okay with that."

Shark Girl

Address:
70 Pearl St., Buffalo, NY
Directions:
South edge of the city. From downtown drive south on Pearl St., under the elevated highway. You'll come to an open space and Perry Blvd will intersect Pearl St. on the right. Look to the left. You'll see a pedestrian footbridge. Shark Girl sits at the left end of that footbridge.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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