Beaver sculpture prompts controversy in Bemidji

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2010 - 7:10 PM

Some say the fiberglass sculpture's removal was censorship. Critics say it seems to depict genitalia.

Is that art or porn on the belly of the Bemidji beaver?

That question came up last week for strollers along downtown Bemidji's Sculpture Walk, which this year features nine painted fiberglass beavers, including one with -- to some eyes -- a suggestive painting on its belly.

After about 20 callers complained to City Hall that artist Deborah Davis' painting appeared to be of female genitalia, City Manager John Chattin on Thursday ordered Davis' sculpture removed from the Sculpture Walk, officials in the northern Minnesota city said this weekend.

Al Belleveau, president of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, said that at Chattin's request, he moved the sculpture to his yard until the City Council decides what to do with it when it meets Tuesday.

That prompted a protest during Sunday's July 4th parade. "A crowd" of people gathered near where Davis' beaver sculpture had stood, some carrying signs that read "Censored," Davis said Sunday afternoon by phone. In addition, some of the other beaver artists veiled their own works in solidarity with Davis.

Davis, of Blackduck, Minn., called her work "Gaea," which she said can mean "Mother Earth" or "God is gracious." The beaver has female figures painted on its sides and a tree on its back. Its belly features a painting in which some see praying hands and some see woman's genitalia.

"My intent was to paint Mother Nature, Mother Earth," Davis said. "I didn't understand that some people saw genitalia. ... I understand people see different things in art, and they need to be free to do that. ... My intent was to paint a praying woman."

Bemidji City Council Member Barbara Meuers said she saw a photo of the Gaea sculpture in the local paper and "it was not enough to raise eyebrows." She said she believes Davis, a former kindergarten teacher, "didn't intend for it to be a sexual thing. ... I did not find it offensive."

City Council Member Kevin Waldhausen said he won't make a decision about the sculpture's fate until he gets more information at Tuesday's meeting. "It does appear to be part of the female anatomy on the front of it," he said. "There's two sides to every issue. Art is perceived by the person looking at it. There can be 100,000 interpretations of it. That's art."

He said he expects a lively discussion Tuesday.

Belleveau, himself an artist, said, "I really want the sculpture to continue to be part of the art Sculpture Walk."

Options, he said, include having Davis modify the controversial painting or moving the sculpture inside a building, such as an art gallery, so viewers have to choose to go see it instead of just stumbling across it.

Davis said she wants to talk to the city manager before deciding whether she will modify the work.

"I'd prefer that my art stay," she said. "My hope is that people could be free to make up their own minds, particularly on Independence Day."

Staff writers Sarah Lemagie and Pamela Miller contributed to this report. pmiller@startribune.com • 612-673-4290

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