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Pelican statue tells a tale

The 12-foot-tall pelican that Gary Rager is placing in front of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary will tell you he thinks big. But, then, he has a big message he wants to get across.

His message is to protect the environment.

The pelican looks just fine on its right side, but its left wing is enmeshed in monofilament fishing line, and an oversized fish hook is caught in its beak. Rager hopes the pelican's predicament will bring to the viewer the plight of Florida sea birds. He could think of no more appropriate place for the work than in front of the sanctuary, where founder Ralph Heath and his staff have rehabilitated thousands of birds.

The big bird is the fourth in a series of sculptures coupling Rager's artistic talent with his love of nature and, in some instances, with a touch of humor. All four sculptures will be on display from 2 to 4 p.m. March 12 at the unveiling of The Pelican at the sanctuary, 18328 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores.

It took Rager about three months to create the pelican, which is made of fiberglass over a steel frame. Brazing wire was used to create the finely detailed feathers and other features. Posters of the work will be sold for $10 at the sanctuary, the Pass-a-Grille Art Colony and other locations.

Another sculpture depicts a manatee with near-human facial features, holding its baby in a pleading gesture. Its back bears the scars of boats.

A third sculpture, which Rager thinks is sold, is of a giant grouper holding a fishing rod with a man on the end of the hook.

"I want them to be intimidating," Rager, 40, says of his animals. "I want to reflect a reverse role where we are the ones wondering what our fate is, as I'm sure they are wondering."

Not all the sculptures are as obvious in their message. No one could take too seriously the larger-than-life caricature of The Tourists, an extremely fleshy woman bulging forth from a bright bikini, and her pot-bellied husband in bathing suit, black socks and baseball hat, gazing serenely at the horizon with litter at their feet.

Rager says he is negotiating with two Sarasota galleries over this pair.

The environmental artist has won a silver and a gold Addy award, given for outstanding advertisements, in local and district competition. His work includes the logo on the front of the Stouffer Vinoy Resort and logos on three sides of the Plaza and Courtyard Shops complex. A design of five metal dolphins back-lit in neon, which gives the dolphins the appearance of jumping out of the water, won the nod of St. Petersburg's Public Arts Commission. It will be used on the Southwest Wastewater Treatment plant's exterior tanks.

Rager developed an empathy for animals while growing up in Johnstown, Pa. "I was a Boy Scout forever, and I hiked every square inch of the mountains around there," he said. He received his fine arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and studied commercial art in Pittsburgh.

Rager worked in advertising agencies in New York City and St. Petersburg before returning to his first love, art. In his 14 years here, he has become highly attached to the water. His home and studio are on Madeira Beach and he owns a 34-foot Luhrs motor trawler. He is an avid scuba diver, he says, and has a captain's license for boating.