The statues were part of a public art exhibit called “Mississippi Catfish on Parade,” which the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange put on in 2003. Inspired by an art movement where cities around the world were doing public-sculpture projects, commission chairman Jack Kyle commissioned Jackson’s own version. “It was an effort to show that Jackson was on top of current public-art trends,” he says.
New York had a parade of cows; San Francisco displayed hearts, and Arkansas chose hogs. Kyle said the initial idea for Jackson was to do bulls to tie in with the 2001 “Majesty of Spain” exhibition. But eventually, the commission decided to use catfish because of Mississippi’s role in that industry.
“We wanted to select an image that would resonate for the whole state,” Kyle says.
Kyle says the catfish were mass-produced fiberglass sculptures imported from Spain. Local businesses and nonprofits were asked to sponsor a fish and decorate it with their own flare. A total of 68 statues went on display, primarily throughout the downtown area. They had clever names such as “Catfish on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Atticus Fish.” Artist Wyatt Waters painted one called “Fish out of Waters.”
The catfish spent about five months on display, and afterward, sponsors were encouraged to take them. Some of the more elaborate fish were auctioned off for certain causes. However, a few of these statues are still floating around Jackson today. One catfish decorated with kites and butterflies is on display outside Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital.
Though “Mississippi Catfish on Parade” was a temporary exhibit, Kyle says people still have fond memories of them.
“You really saw people coming to the downtown to look at them and enjoy a little bit of beauty,” he says.
His organization also commissioned a “Mississippi Catfish on Parade” book. Created by Liquid Creative and photographed by Gil Ford, the book contains pictures of the various catfish sculptures, along with the name, sponsor and artist of each.
Meridian, which displayed carousel horses, was the first city in Mississippi to do a pop-art project of this kind. Hattiesburg also held a “Festival of Swans,” which Kyle helped organize. Some of the swans are still at the Hattiesburg Zoo or around town.
The commission is a 501c3 nonprofit created in 1994 to organize, develop and promote major international exhibitions.
Exhibits such as “Palaces of St. Petersburg” in 1996, “Majesty of Spain” in 2001, and “Glory of Baroque Dresden” in 2004, have drawn more than 1 million visitors, including international royalty.
Kyle is also the senior director of arts development and the chair of arts administration at Belhaven University.