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First stop on Summer Life Top 100 tour: Shark Girl

Under the normal laws of nature, the shark circles the people.

Here in Buffalo, the people circle the shark.

Walk past Shark Girl, the whimsical waterfront sculpture, on any sunny afternoon, and odds are, she will be surrounded. And someone will be sitting next to her. And both fish and visitor will be flashing the same toothy grin.

“They’re lured in!” laughed Peg Mark of East Aurora, one of a group gathered around Shark Girl on a recent Friday, as smartphone cameras clicked.

“How could you walk past it? It’s so unusual,” said her friend Laura Clark of Lancaster. She was seeing Shark Girl for the first time – although, she said, “I read about her in the paper.”

Mark, Clark and the shark were joined by three others – Paula Pless of Amherst, Carol Varga of Tonawanda, and Sheryl Mark, who lives on the waterfront. As they contemplated the sculpture, a wave of feminism washed over the group.

“It’s nice to have a woman representing us on the waterfront,” Sheryl Mark joked.

“Girl power!” chimed in Clark. “It’s as if she’s saying, ‘Look how innocent I am, but I’ll bite your head off.’”

Throughout the conversation, Shark Girl sat sweetly and silently. She is modest and passive in her little dress, with her bloomers just visible and her legs crossed in ladylike fashion, at the ankle. Her feet, in “Over the Rainbow” red shoes, seem about a size five. Her hands, demurely clasped, rest in her lap.

That’s the sugar. Atop it is the spice: that huge, horrifying, toothy “Jaws” head.

It speaks to a kind of strange strength. And you could say that Shark Girl, the brainchild of Cincinnati artist Casey Riordan Millard, is already a survivor.

After she arrived in Buffalo last August, purchased for an undisclosed sum by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, she was immediately controversial. Folks in Cincinnati objected to her sudden removal, without notice. In Buffalo, there were questions along the line of: “But is it art?”

The storms died down, and Shark Girl settled in. She was close to the water’s edge, though, and became a bit worn and weatherbeaten. It was hard to fix her because, in January, it was found she was frozen in place.

In April, the ice melted, and Shark Girl was freed. She took a few weeks off for repairs. Now she is back, perched on a walkway over the ice rink.

She looks stronger than ever.

The sculptor, on her website, offers a windy philosophical exploration of Shark Girl, which seems to be her most famous creation. In reality, Shark Girl defies explanation, and seems to need none. Her admirers multiply, posing proudly with her and, often, posting their pictures on her Twitter feed, @sharkgirlfbflo. The mystery is part of the fun.

“It’s some weird statement on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Lewis Carroll,” reflected Brandon Mendyk of Kenmore, as his daughter, Jade, smiled up at Shark Girl. He added: “It’s interesting. I’ll give it that.”

Andrew Sanford, a Buffalo expat visiting from New Mexico, approached Shark Girl curiously with his wife, Leslie. They were exploring the Buffalo Naval and Servicemen’s Park when they glanced over the footbridge and saw something, well, fishy. They couldn’t tell what it was from a distance. They just knew they had to get their picture taken with it.

Because, in Buffalo, you just have to.

“It’s not exactly something I’ve ever seen,” Leslie Sanford said.

Her husband, studying the sculpture, agreed.

“I like it,” he said, deadpan. “It’s a good mix of child and shark.”

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