A Sturgeon Sculpture for the School

Eleventh-grade student Mary Kate Johnson donates her Tucker River Fellows project to GPS
Rising senior Mary Kate Johnson applied for the Tucker River Fellows program in eighth grade because she felt it would be a great way to foster her love for nature through interactive learning experiences. “I wanted to join Tucker River Fellows because I wanted to branch out, not only in the community of GPS but the Chattanooga community, as well. TRF reaches a wide variety of Chattanoogan associations, and through them I have been able to meet so many interesting people who have changed my perspective on the environment I love.”

Designed to prepare future leaders to understand and have an impact on the conservation of the Tennessee River, Tucker River Fellows is an endowed, multiyear cocurricular program started by the Board of Trustees and named after former headmaster Randy Tucker. Fellows are selected prior to their freshman year and spend part of the summer and following academic year engaged in experiential learning about the many issues impacting their local watershed as well as learning about the historical, ecological, political, economic, and aesthetic significance of the Tennessee River.

For Mary Kate and the rest of her cohort, freshman year of the program was dedicated to raising sturgeon and visiting places that impact the river. Once a week, they would travel to the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI), located on Baylor’s campus, and get to work. 

“Each year TNACI raises a ton of sturgeon—it’s an endangered species—and releases them into the river,” said Mary Kate. “We would feed them bloodworms each week and monitor their growth!”

The Fellows were fortunate enough to be able to bring one albino sturgeon to GPS to raise—named Freckles. “We all loved Freckles so much, she basically became our club mascot,” Mary Kate said. “She was premature, so whereas most lake sturgeon can grow to be close to seven feet, she was closer to four feet.”

Sophomore year of the program builds upon the knowledge gleaned during the first year and puts it to use. Tucker River Fellows sponsor and science teacher Katye Adams Couch ’92 explained, “During the second year in the program, Fellows choose a focus and work with local experts, scientific literature, and policy to become more knowledgeable about their chosen topic in order to implement an independent project.”

When it came time for Mary Kate to select her project, she knew she wanted to do something art-related, and her inspiration was clear: Freckles. Her mom helped her get in touch with Julie Hailey Clark ’81, a professional welder, and they got to work planning and creating a sturgeon sculpture.

“I have worked with a lot of people—learning welding, cutting, and metalworking skills—and I have never had anyone pick it up as effortlessly as Mary Kate,” said Clark. “The use of my equipment is intimidating with sparks, heat, and loud noises, and it can take many people a long time to become comfortable using the welders, plasma cutters, forge, grinders, etc. Mary Kate never gave it a second thought. I would just show her how and off she went with all of it. That was fun.” 

Mary Kate said that while welding is hard to master, it was exciting to learn something new. “I think I really enjoyed the aspect of learning a new skill and knowing that I’m doing something not many people know how to do,” she said. “It was cool to have my own vision for the sculpture and create it exactly how I wanted it.”

During the weekly River Fellows club time, Mary Kate would discuss the project with Clark, and on the weekends, she would travel to her workshop in Rising Fawn to bring their ideas to life. “Julie is the coolest person ever—it was really great to work with her,” Mary Kate said. “We’re friends now, and it’s been fun to hear stories and see views of the world from someone of a different generation.”

Julie said of their time working together, “MK is a true delight. She is so easy to hang out with and just has a great attitude. I am pretty particular about people using my equipment and I have to think of safety ... a lot can happen. Burns, cuts, smashed fingers, sparks flying everywhere. I mean, I have caught my pant leg on fire! Mary Kate handled all of it with care, not even a scratch, and never even burned up a welding tip. She is pretty remarkable.”

The project took approximately one year to complete, and Mary Kate felt the sculpture would be best suited to grace the walls of GPS, where it was initially inspired. “I knew I wanted my art installed somewhere, and GPS seemed like the perfect place, since it overlooks the river,” she said. It was installed recently on the exterior wall of the Upper School building outside The Ben on Bowman Terrace. 

“I think it is awesome that she chose a project that aligned with her interests and that she was able to connect and learn from a professional artist in addition to utilizing GPS resources, like the makerspace, to tie into what she has learned about the Tennessee River,” said Couch. “Her cohort of River Fellows has quite a special relationship with the re-introduction of the sturgeon to the Tennessee River, so I am very pleased that the sculpture will remain at GPS and in sight of the river to hopefully educate and help people see the ‘hidden’ parts of the river.”

Mary Kate looks on her time with Tucker River Fellows fondly. “It’s the coolest experience I’ve had at GPS. It has been totally different than any other club or extracurricular program I’ve been a part of,” she said. “The part that makes it so cool is that it’s a ton of different girls who share a common interest. None of my super close friends are in the club, but I’ve made a lot of new friends and connections through the adventures we’ve had together while benefiting the community.”