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Bemidji Sculpture Walk: Dreamers brought 3D art to downtown streets

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Oh, what can grow from a few ideas and some dedicated volunteers!

Back in 1999, a handful of people - Suzi Rhea, Al and Cate Belleveau, to name three - got together to form the Bemidji Sculpture Walk Committee. The original mission statement was: "Minnesota, its people, its diverse culture, its legends, and its natural beauty."

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The city of Bemidji adopted the group as a sub-committee of Parks and Recreation, and off they went to procure three dimensional artwork for the streets of downtown Bemidji. Some of the aims of the original group were to display public art, to grow to become a successful permanent non-profit and to secure a strong and lasting appreciation for all the arts. All of the objectives have been met in the intervening 12 years, and the original members have turned over the reins to a new board: President Mitch Blessing, Vice President Darin Hansen, Secretary Shanna Mae Olson, and Treasurer Roxie Mann. Board members are Katie Carter, Audrey Thayer, Travis Turner, and Albert and Cate Belleveau, emeritus.

In just a short time, artists from around the country and Canada submitted pictures or slides of their work in anticipation of being picked to be displayed in this fair city. Sponsors, local businesses and individuals, stepped up to the challenge and provided money to support this effort and also to give the individual artists a stipend for bringing their pieces to be displayed here for an entire year. Stories were written in newspapers in and around the area and in national magazines about this grassroots venture that has expanded to garner attention and respect from within and without the arts community. Organizations in town purchased individual pieces to remain on permanent display: "Little Bird," the People's Choice for 2009, now sits in the garden outside the Bemidji Public Library, the "Policeman" stands by the Law Enforcement Center and the "Fireman" holds a fire hose and stands ready to do battle stands outside the Bemidji Fire Department.

Tourists coming off buses, down by the Visitor Center, are overheard commenting on where to get the map for the sculptures and where to start looking.

We in the city of Bemidji are accustomed to seeing these pieces every day on the way to work, play, buy and dine at the various downtown establishments. Some of the pieces are very popular and get a lot of attention: For example, in 2009-10, the bronze statue of a farmer's wife with her apron filled with a harvest of fruits and vegetables or "Rock Ant Roll" where the strings of the ant's guitar could actually be plucked.

This year, the "Tuckered Out, Guardian Angel" always seems to have people standing and looking. "ReCycle Man" is a reminder to up-cycle, and Bemidji State University Student Candice Billups' "Copper Tree" reaches up toward the bright blue skies of Northern Minnesota.

Starting today, April 24, we can vote on-line for the People's Choice winner for 2010-11. The award carries with it a $1,000 prize to the winner. This year, the board members chose a different way for voting which opens up the chance for summer residents, visitors and community members to voice an opinion.

All of the pieces accompany this article, and readers may vote through May 13 by clicking on the poll at right. Vote for your favorite, the tabulation mechanism will only allow for one vote per person so there won't be a chance to stuff the ballot box. Take a look at the pieces online and even better, take a walk around town and look at them in person before making a choice.

While on that walk downtown to view the 2010-11 pieces, also take a good look at the free standing beaver sculptures for they will be coming up for auction in May. The Nielson Foundation supported an effort by the Sculpture Walk Committee to become self-sustaining by giving a grant for a fund raising effort of having Bemidji artists paint a figure that would be displayed on the downtown streets and then auctioned off to the highest bidders. The public voted on several different images that they would have liked to see fabricated and then painted by local artists. A Beaver was chosen as the figure and the artists were chosen. In the spring of 2010, 10 beavers were installed downtown, all by different artists and with individual themes. One other beaver was taken to the 4- H Fair and painted by the public. The beaver shown with the Sculpture Walk Committee was painted by Tim Nelson and is named "Happy Trails." All of the artists used their own materials to paint or decorate their pieces and will be reimbursed for their expenses after the sale of each piece at the annual gala reception in May. The bulk of the money collected will go to the Sculpture Walk Committee for future similar projects.

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