Here in County Kerry (Ireland) on the Dingle Peninsula, there once lived a dolphin. Every day, rain or shine, tour boats would head out into the harbor to get a glimpse of him. In fact, the people who ran these tours made you a promise of your money back if the dolphin failed to appear, and appear he did. He’d come up alongside the boats and launch himself into the air with what seemed like a broad smile on his face, and everyone would cheer. “Fungi,” as he became known, stayed in the harbor for well over thirty years, but then the pandemic struck and the boats stopped taking folks out to see him. It wasn’t long before he disappeared without a trace. I’m sure he could not stand to be alone. After all, Dingle Bay was a safe place for him and those tour boats full of people gave him a chance to show off and have a good time and play to the crowd.

When we first moved here to Ireland, twenty years ago, I knew little of the dolphin called Fungi until one night in the pub I accidentally crossed a line. I was talking to a local man who was telling me all about Fungi and how regular the dolphin would follow the tour boats, day after day, year after year. I asked him if he was absolutely sure it was the same mammal, “Oh yes,” he said he was sure. Maybe it was the Guinness that night, but I jokingly said, “You know dolphins wind up in tuna cans accidentally.”

A cold look came over his face. “You shouldn’t say those things,” he said. “I was just playing around, no harm meant,” I said. Not long after that encounter I realized how sacred Fungi was to the people of this peninsula and how there are some things best left alone. Things that are deemed sacred are best handled with kid gloves.

In April of 1993 UMVA member Bryce Muir* curated an exhibition for the Union called Sacred Spaces. The exhibition took place at the Icon Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, which at the time was used as the Union’s gallery as well. The idea was to create the illusion of multiple hallowed environments: a sacred grove, a mystic sanctuary, a shaman’s lodge, to name a few. Bryce felt that art and the act of making art was sacred in and of itself. He felt art held a spiritual essence that should be respected. Artists were asked to collaborate and create installations that reflected their own perceived beliefs about what was sacred, yet at the same time keeping the overall atmosphere of the exhibition playful.

The exhibition was a riot of color and belief structures. It mashed Hinduism up against Native American tribal culture, religious iconography against pagan raw beauty. In a review by Edgar Allen Beem** from the Maine Times, 7 May 1993, Mr. Beem says: “The issues Sacred Spaces raise are many and various, the most obvious being the appropriateness of appropriating spiritual imagery from other cultures.” There was concern then, as there is now, that respect should be demonstrated when referencing cultural beliefs alien to our own. I agree. Beem goes on to say, “much of the exhibition staggers along the fine line between irony and sincerity.”

It was that fine line that artists find themselves walking along: put a foot down wrong and run the risk of being condemned for something that was meant to be tongue and cheek. This from The Times Record, Brunswick, Maine, Thursday 27 May 1993, by Kim Cannon: “The exhibition Sacred Spaces is a collaborative installation by over forty UMVA members. According to the show’s statement, it is a communal vision brought together by a tag team of playful artists whose goal it is to examine how humans sanctify their personal space with objects—both solemn and joyous.” Yet I’m sure there were those who viewed this exhibition and walked away offended, not sure exactly what was spiritual or wondering if the artist was pulling their leg, saying, I’m only having a good time playing with your head, don’t be offended.

The exhibition Sacred Spaces was never meant to offend, or as Edgar Allen Beem went on to say: “Sacred Spaces is the UMVA’s tribal vision of a place sacred to art. It is the manifestation of artists acting out their spiritual confusion within the defining walls of an art gallery.” Perhaps it is that confusion that makes art so necessary, by diving deep into ourselves, looking for answers.

When I drive into Dingle these days, the bay to my left, I am struck by how empty it all is, now that the dolphin has vanished. I was never out on one of those tour boats to see him, even though I could make out his splashing alongside the boats as I stood on the strand. Yes. The bay is very empty now with his passing. With him gone he left us to ponder the future, a replacement maybe? A new spirit with the same sense of play? Who knows, but I will keep looking.



Mark Petroff, former UMVA member and one of the original founders of the Union, passed away on 6 November 2023. He was sixty-nine years old.

  • Bryce Muir, UMVA member, died tragically in 2005 when he fell through the ice while skating.

** Edgar Allen Beem, continues to think and write about art.


Image at top: Mark Petroff, from the UMVA newsletter 1992.