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Bemidji City Council votes unanimously to return art piece to Sculpture Walk

This beaver statue painted by Deborah Davis has been pulled from the Bemidji Sculpture Walk. Some have complained to city about the statue's painting design. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

BEMIDJI - Deborah Davis hid her face with a fan created from a copy of the Bill of Rights as the Bemidji City Council made it official: "Gaea" will return to downtown Bemidji.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to reverse last week's decision by City Manager John Chattin to remove "Gaea" from its spot at the intersection of Fourth Street Northwest and Beltrami Avenue Northwest due to concerns about what was depicted on the abdomen of the beaver.

"I do believe good always wins," Davis said after the meeting, her voice slightly cracking. "But I didn't think I could fight City Hall."

"Gaea" is one of 10 beaver sculptures placed throughout Bemidji. Completed by Davis, it features, on the belly of the beaver, a human figure rising from a sea of pinkish-red circles.

While Davis has said the front of the sculpture shows Mother Earth praying and the circles are roses coming forth from her hands, others have viewed the sculpture differently, seeing, instead, a portion of the female anatomy.

"Gaea" was removed from the Bemidji Sculpture Walk last week at the city's request, prompting an outcry from artists and supporters concerned about censorship.

Those supporters filled the City Hall council chambers Tuesday as they protested the removal of the 4-foot-tall, multicolored sculpture.

With more than 80 people in attendance, there was a standing-room-only crowd of people that spilled out into the entryway after chairs were filled.

Fifteen people addressed the council, 12 of whom clearly advocated for returning "Gaea" to the Sculpture Walk.

"Bemidji has aspired to be an especially art-friendly city," said Brian Donovan. "We need to be careful not to chill the climate for artistic expression in the form of public art in this sculpture walk and elsewhere. Nothing chills expression more than censorship."

Kathryn Lavelle said "Gaea" depicted womanness, womanhood, feminine strength and beauty.

"I'm interested in knowing which of these things ... Mr. Chattin or the council has an issue with," she said.

The crowd of spectators was overwhelmingly in favor of restoring "Gaea" to the Sculpture Walk, but other views were represented. Dave Larson said knew he respected artists' rights to expression, but questioned whether a downtown intersection was the best location for the sculpture.

"In my opinion, I think it's inappropriately displayed on a corner of our street," he said. "I don't think that's the place to display it."

He said he has six granddaughters and three daughters.

"I would hesitate to walk downtown and try to explain to them what they're looking at," Larson said. "I would find that difficult."

In response, Linda Brown stepped to the podium and said that any child who looks at "Gaea" and see a portion of the female anatomy probably "has been exposed to something (the child) should not have been exposed to" and said social services should meet that child.

Brown said she has viewed "Gaea" multiple times and never saw an image of the female anatomy.

Following the public input, the council did not take long to reach its decision.

Councilor Barb Meuers opened that portion of the discussion by asking Chattin how he came to reach his decision.

"I chose to remove it because I felt it was inappropriate for a major intersection or any other public place for the city of Bemidji," Chattin said.

While he did discuss the sculpture with city staff and City Attorney Al Felix, Chattin said, "This was entirely my decision."

Meuers said "everyone is watching us," and referenced recent interviews she gave to the Star Tribune and Wall Street Journal.

"I'm hoping we don't go the way you did, with censorship," she said.

Councilor Roger Hellquist said the controversy has presented an opportunity for the city to develop a process or policy to address similar situations in the future.

While both later voted to return "Gaea" to the Sculpture Walk, both Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilor Greg Negard tried to temper the anger some supporters felt toward Chattin.

"I don't agree with his decision on this," Negard said. "But he did make a decision and I don't think we should take him to task too much on this."

A meeting had been planned for Tuesday afternoon in advance of the council meeting, but that meeting was canceled, Lehmann said.

Bethany Wesley is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.