Last night, the Bemidji City Council voted to return the statue “Gaea” to its place on the Bemidji Art Walk at the corner of 4th Street and Beltrami Avenue. [Click here to see pictures]. The fiberglass beaver had been removed last week by order of City Manager John Chattin, who felt the painted front of the beaver looked like female genitalia. Gaea was one of 11 beavers to adorn the art walk this year. The beaver is the Bemidji State University mascot.
Gaea had lots of supporters in Bemidji, many of whom turned out for the city council meeting, filling the council chambers and spilling into the hall. Gaea herself was also present for the meeting, placed at the back of the room. 15 people spoke during the comment period, including artists, city residents, students, a representative of the ACLU, and a member of the Sculpture Walk Committee.
The civil discussion that ensued covered censorship, the extent of the city manager’s authority, dismay over his single-handedness and lack of artistic input in removing the sculpture, and the lack of clear guidance or agreed-upon criteria for public art. One commentator asked those who found the piece objectionable to “get your minds out of the gutter.” Another equated the piece with “woman-ness, womanhood, feminine strength and beauty.” Others expressed dismay that Bemidji, which calls itself the First City of the Arts, had become the center of national media attention for its attempt to censor the piece: “If you Google ‘pornographic beaver’ your first search result will be ‘Bemidji’,” said one BSU student.
Just one elderly gentleman spoke in opposition to the majority: “It is not obscene to me, no,” he said. “But yes, it is offensive…I would not want my daughters and granddaughters to see it and have to explain what they’re looking at…It belongs in an art gallery where people can intentionally view it.”
Gaea’s creator, Deborah Davis, said she had recently spoken with supporters, journalists and celebrities from as far away as Japan and New York. “Gaea has touched people,” she said. “Gaea makes people feel peaceful, happy, positive and empowered.”
Council member Barb Meuers moved to “Put the statue back,” with a second from council member Ron Johnson. The vote was unanimous.
After the motion, the statue was picked up by a group of enthusiastic supporters and marched back to its pedestal, occasioning both applause and tears. “Communication is so important,” said Meuers after the vote. “Obviously, it wasn’t what it should be.”