Bemidji removes beaver sculpture after complaints

BEMIDJI - Gary "Ziggy" Zerott, the owner of Cool Threads and one of three sponsors of the controversial "Gaea" beaver sculpture, wants the piece returned to public view.

A local resident stops to take a photo of a painted Beaver by local artist Paula Swenson at the corner of Sixth Street and Beltrami Avenue Northwest. Pioneer photo by Monte Draper

BEMIDJI - Gary "Ziggy" Zerott, the owner of Cool Threads and one of three sponsors of the controversial "Gaea" beaver sculpture, wants the piece returned to public view.

"Thank God we don't have Michelangelo's 'David' here," he said. "I wish (the city) would just put it back up."

"David," a 17-foot-tall marble sculpture, depicts a nude image of the Biblical hero.

"Gaea," painted on one of the 4-foot-tall beaver blanks, features forms of the female body and natural elements including a tree and flower. The focal point of the front of the sculpture, located on the belly portion of the beaver, is a human figure rising from a sea of pinkish-red circles.

Davis has said the front of the sculpture shows Mother Earth praying and the circles are roses coming forth from those hands.


But others have viewed the sculpture differently, seeing, instead, a portion of the female anatomy.

It was that interpretation that led City Manager John Chattin last week to order the removal of "Gaea," created by Blackduck artist Deborah A. Davis.

Her removal immediately prompted a flurry of controversy. A Facebook site, "Bring back Gaea to the Bemidji Sculpture Walk," was created, on which supporters promised to confront the Bemidji City Council during its regular meeting Monday night, hoping the councilors would reverse Chattin's decision.

Since then, however, a new meeting has been planned. Mayor Richard Lehmann confirmed Monday that a meeting will be held with him, city staff and representatives of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk Committee.

"Perhaps we can head off that discussion and come to an amicable solution," Lehmann said.

He agreed with Chattin in that the city manager has the discretion to order the removal of a sculpture.

Chattin said it "would be nice" to reach a compromise with the Sculpture Walk Committee, but said he did not regret his decision.

"I still believe it was the right thing to do," he said.


Debate continues

As of Monday afternoon, 720 users indicated they "like" the "Gaea" Facebook page. In Facebook terms, that means they support the effort to bring the statue back.

An online poll on the Bemidji Pioneer's website, which had nearly 400 votes, showed 78 percent of voters wanted the sculpture returned to its location, 19 percent did not want it returned, and 2 percent were not sure.

While initial discussion focused on what was or was not depicted in "Gaea," the debate has changed recently to ask: Even if a woman's anatomy is pictured, does that make the artwork inappropriate?

Cate Belleveau, one of the Sculpture Walk founders and a sponsor of "Gaea" through the Wild Rose Theater, said no.

"We're about women, not being ashamed of being women," she said of the Wild Rose Theater, which supports having "Gaea" returned to her former location at the intersection of Fourth Street Northwest and Beltrami Avenue Northwest.

Belleveau said she saw the "female parts" right away in "Gaea," but that she is more concerned with the depiction of women in the mainstream media.

The imagery in "Gaea," Belleveau said, is subtle and respectful, indicative of work done by Georgia O'Keefe, an American artist, whose floral pieces also alluded to the female anatomy.


"We don't see it in any way as being offensive," Belleveau said.

Representatives for the third sponsor of the sculpture, Kelsey's Jewelry, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Sponsors are actually "site sponsors" and do not necessarily see the sculptures before they are placed at their locations.

Zerott, for instance, did not learn that he had sponsored "Gaea" until Belleveau saw him at the Fourth of July parade Sunday afternoon.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," he said of the sculpture. "I wish they would just put it back up."

He also wondered if the city would refund him the money that he contributes toward the site sponsorship.

"Now I'm sponsoring empty space," Zerott said.

Will council act?


The City Council convened for its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday night at City Hall. The "Gaea" issue did not exist in time to be placed on the agenda, so the council had two choices for how to handle those who wish to speak.

Either the council could vote to amend the agenda and add the discussion as new business or it could wait and hear from those wishing to speak during the portion at the end of the meeting titled "citizens with business not on the agenda."

Either way, council action is not guaranteed.

Typically, the council accepts information on new topics, but does not take action as the discussion was not formally announced.

With an issue like this, however, Lehmann said, it's likely that city councilors already are aware of the different points of view.

"Council could choose to take action," he said. But he could not guarantee that would happen.

Lehmann declined to offer his own opinions on "Gaea," saying he would like to first discuss the sculpture with the committee.

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