WHEN YOU THINK OF BEMIDJI, what comes to mind?
If you’re like me, you would probably answer “Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,” right?
And you would be right. But as I discovered on a recent visit to this northern Minnesota city, Bemidji is about so much more than the legendary lumberjack and his sidekick bovine.
Bemidji is also a thriving arts community. I learned this almost immediately after signing Paul’s over-sized guestbook at the Tourist Information Center located next to the Paul Bunyan and Babe statutes along Lake Bemidji. The woman staffing the center made sure I got a brochure directing me to the Bemidji Sculpture Art Walk.
This year’s walk features 50 sculptures scattered on street corners throughout the historic downtown. The latest art went up in mid-May and will be on loan to the community for a year. And although I was told to vote for my favorite, I never actually cast my ballot for the People’s Choice $1,000 winner.
Sorry, Lee Leuning and Sheei Treeby, because I would have selected your “Grannie’s Garden,” positioned on the corner of 4th St. N.W. and Beltrami Ave. N.W. And if I had an extra $45,000, I would have considered buying your bronze sculpture of an old woman with an apron full of vegetables. Her unforgettable, kindly face and connection to my rural roots instantly endeared her to me. She would have fit perfectly in my backyard.
I didn’t see all 50 sculptures, but I viewed enough to applaud this public art project. This outdoor art gallery offers just one more reason to visit Paul Bunyan’s hometown.
CURIOUS PERSON THAT I AM, I desired more information about the Bemidji Sculpture Walk. So I talked to scrap metal sculpture artist and BSW co-founder Al Belleveau. Here’s one man passionate about the outdoor gallery, now in its 11th year in Bemidji.
He is quick to credit his wife, Catie, for suggesting the BSW after she saw a similar sculpture walk in Grand Junction, Co.
And I thought this was unique to Bemidji. Not so. According to Al, the Bemidji art project is among a network of sculpture walks located in cities across the country. Bemidji partners with Sioux Falls, S.D., which hosts the nation’s largest outdoor transient sculpture walk. Some sculptures rotate between the two towns.
In Minnesota, Bemidji is the only city with an annual rotating sculpture walk.
Al gets calls or e-mails from interested artists almost daily. Those artists complete an entry form and a committee reviews the applications, considering safety, aesthetics and durability (the art must withstand cold, snow and road salt, Al says). This year’s sculptures come from a good smattering of Minnesota artists, Al says, and from artists in California, Arizona and South Dakota. All receive a $300 honorarium with local businesses sponsoring the artwork.
Pulling visitors into Bemidji’s historic downtown was part of the impotence behind the sculpture walk, says Al. He would watch people take pictures with Paul Bunyan and Babe, then jump in their cars and leave. He wanted to change that—to get people into the coffee shops, restaurants, clothing stores, art venues and other downtown businesses.
That has happened with the sculpture walk. Al compares the sculptures to mushrooms, “like the fruiting body for a deep network of the arts” that also includes theater and music. Bemidji is becoming recognized as an art town, he says, and that has much to do with “the art is in your face” sculpture walk.
“Our gallery is outdoors,” Al says. While most of the sculptures are in Bemidji for only a year before new ones rotate in, some have been purchased for permanent indoor or outdoor display. The first in that permanent collection was “Niimii” by Bemidji artist Wanda Reise Odegard. Dedicated to all pow-wow dancers, “Niimii,” meaning “the dances,” is located near the tourist information center.
Visitors can contribute monies toward purchase of the sculptures or can also buy individual sculptures. Most are for sale and the BSW earns commission from the sales. The number of sculptures displayed every year depends on funding.
Considering all the sculptures is “like being in a candy shop,” says Al. “It’s hard not to buy the last candy bar.”
Speaking of which, Bemidji has one delectable downtown candy shop, Chocolates Plus. But that’s another story.
(Watch for more info on Bemidji in future blogs.)
© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling