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Sheepish? Not these islanders

Shelter Island, N.Y., isn't cowed by big-city spectacles as it goes all out for its 350th year.

August 25, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. — The signs went up two Fridays ago at George's IGA market: "Sheep Voting Begins Monday."

Stephanie Zinger, who is supervising the voting, posted the signs on her own three sheep, the bodies of which are painted in checkerboard patterns and the heads red, white and blue, with a 3 on one, a 5 on another and a 0 on the third. Placed together, they form "350," the anniversary being celebrated by this island -- and the reason for the plywood sheep you see all over the place.

There's one marked "Bah Bah Shop" in front of, naturally, the barbershop. Someone's yard has a "Sheep Music" sheep with a toy sax in its mouth and notes on its body, said to be "Blue Baaaaa Ewe." Even the local cops got into the act with a "Shark in Sheep's Clothing," painted like the "Jaws" creature that terrorized a fictional vacation isle.

For 15 months now, the sheep have served as a mass exercise of creative whimsy here -- and as a countrified counterpoint to the fancy "cow parades" staged in cities from Chicago to London.

In those extravaganzas, large fiberglass cows are sponsored by businesses, decorated by prominent artists and eventually auctioned off for charity. Their success has spawned a series of equally professional variations, from a Moose Parade in Toronto to a Gators Galore in Florida.

The Connecticut-based CowParade Holdings organization now peddles cow snow globes, coffee mugs and miniature ceramic copies of the most popular cows, which are sold at airport gift shops and on the Internet, at $17.99 for a 4-inch Gladiator Cow, say.

But Shelter Island has taken the concept back to the grass roots, so to speak. The local version was the brainchild of Patricia Shillingburg, a member of the 350th anniversary committee who saw the original Cow Parade in Chicago in 1999 and a Painted Ponies festival in Albuquerque. "A year later I was in the shower thinking what to do to unify the island," she recalled. "And I thought: 'sheep.' "

It was not feasible to have professionals decorate them, she decided, given that "in a city, you have lots of artists. Here we have two." So the committee last year invited all residents to do-it-themselves, and not on molded three-dimensional sheep but thin cutouts, one version grazing and a second resting, both with two pointed legs made for sticking into the ground. The cost to get one at the general store, historical society or the florist? $25.

The result? More than 500 went up around the 8,000-acre island between the chic Hamptons and Long Island's North Fork. Before long, you'd hear people asking at the Bliss general store, "Did you see what the 'Sheep of the Week' is?"

The local paper, the Shelter Island Reporter, began giving that honor to displays such as "Caught on the Lamb," in the yard of Nick Panarella, a 69-year-old retired New York City detective. He created a policeman sheep painted blue -- with a gold badge and brass buttons on its uniform -- and a convict sheep in stripes, shackled with a chain around its neck and legs.

Another home erected a Lone Star Sheep decorated like the Texas flag, with cowboy boots and a red bandana. There was a Mermaid Sheep with a seashell bra and a Yellow Cab Sheep ("Veal Medallion") painted like the medallion cabs that honk their horns in Manhattan, two hours west. A Golfer Sheep wore green plaid knickers, and a Fisherman Sheep toted a pole.

The island has 2,500 residents year-round, but the population grows several times that in summer, which was when a household at the north end used its sheep to send a message to the tourists who line up their cars for the ferry to Greenport: "Please Don't Blaaaack Our Driveway."

Other displays were more predictable -- like several Black Sheep. "Some are really good, some are awful," said Lynn Thomson, a clerk in the general store who was amused also at what they were celebrating with all those sheep: "The anniversary of this place being invaded by the white man."

Though Indians lived on Shelter Island well before, 1652 was when the English "settled" it in the person of Nathaniel Sylvester. Today, the grand dame of the island is Alice Fiske, 86, the widow of one of his descendants, Andrew Fiske, a Harvard-educated boatyard executive and 13th "lord of Sylvester Manor."

The original manor house is long gone, but Mrs. Fiske still lives in its replacement, built in 1733. It was on her sprawling property that Shelter Island kicked off its anniversary festivities in May 2002 with a ceremony that included the singing of "God Bless America," written by Irving Berlin in nearby Yaphank. Dressed in a flowing white dress and flowered bonnet, Mrs. Fiske strolled among the first plywood sheep erected -- 15 around her windmill, which used to grind grain for the island.

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