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Always something to do in Bemidji: Arts and Entertainment Year in Review

Bemidji author Beth Solheim was one of the speakers at the first Bemidji Book Festival in August. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

One phrase people almost never hear anymore is "There's nothing to do in Bemidji."

Most of the time, people were referring to the lack of cultural or artistic events, for outdoor sports and sporting events have been the mainstay in Bemidji for as long as anyone can remember. In the past five years or so, there has been an explosion of new ventures, such as the fall Studio Art Cruise, the Mask and Rose Women's Theater Collective, The Loon Opera Company, the Lake Bemidji Opera Galas with Maestro Fulton Gallagher, Saarens Productions (which moved into the Wild Rose Theater) -- the list could go on and on.

There have been small groups devoted to the arts, like the literati who visit the Island Republic in the Mississippi River where Marsh Muirhead is the generalissimo, Will Weaver is the brigadier general and Susan Hauser is the poet laureate. Greg Gasman (KG Entertainment) can always call upon his actor friends to perform in one of his theatrical productions, and then they fade back into the general population. And there are groups like Bemidji Community Theater, which holds open auditions for every upcoming show, following its mission statement to provide an opportunity for the general public to have a theatrical fling.

There are other venues like the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, which uses an artistic director who recruits professional and semiprofessional actors from the Twin Cities and fills in with locals during its summer season of plays and musicals. The PBP, as it is affectionately called by Bemidjians, has enjoyed a 60-year span of continuous summer stock that began at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge and is now located in the historic Chief Theater in downtown Bemidji.

As the Frozen Four put Bemidji on the map for hockey, the controversy over a beaver brought national attention to the Bemidji Sculpture Walk. The old conundrum of what is art was brought full force to Bemidji with folks on either side voicing an opinion of what they believed was suitable for the general public (and their children) to view on the streets of downtown Bemidji.

In the late 1990's, local sculptor Al Belleveau and his wife, Cate; Diane Field, the former director of the Bemidji Community Arts Center; and Dick Rose had the idea of bringing public art to the streets of Bemidji. Roxie Mann of Morrell's Trading Post, the treasurer, became a part of the committee in its early stages.

The city of Bemidji became involved as host of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, which is now a subcommittee of Bemidji Parks and Recreation. With financial support by local businesses as sponsors for the individual pieces, the Sculpture Walk became a reality. What began as a way for local artisans to exhibit their work in a public setting has become a way for sculptors from across the United States to display their work

The Neilson Foundation, which is devoted to awarding monies to local causes, was approached by the Sculpture Walk Committee for a new venture. The Foundation would supply the funds to fabricate Fiberglas figures that would be painted by local artists and displayed in downtown Bemidji for the 2010-2011 Sculpture Walk. By a vote from the general public, a beaver was chosen to be the figure and 2-D artists vied for the opportunity to paint on a 3-D canvas. In late May 2010, Mitch Blessing and Al Belleveau started installing nine of the 10 beavers downtown. Well-known local artists such as Alice Blessing, Kathy Gustafson, Terry Honstead, Mary Therese Peterson and Paula J. Swenson each created fanciful drawings. Native American stone sculptor Gordon VanVert of Park Rapids gave us Pagossenima and Deborah A. Davis portrayed abstract feminine forms on the sides of her piece with the front of the beaver sculpture open to expose roses, multitudes of roses cascading from and down the front and to the sides of the figure. On the July 4 weekend, a grandfather was showing his grandchildren the beavers in downtown Bemidji. That is when the controversy of what is art began. As the saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and so apparently is pornography. What some saw as a beautiful figure, "Gaea," others saw as a figure that should be placed in a non-public setting. The controversy raged on for a bit and public hearing were held but in the end, "Gaea" still stands on the corner of Fourth Street and Beltrami Avenue. Some teens still giggle as they look at "Gaea," others turn their heads so as not to look at her and some stand in amazement at the creativity and beauty of the piece that is so unlike any of the other beaver sculptures.

Another area of art that also is awash in debate is literature. This summer the first Bemidji Book Festival was held, with six days of literary events and authors reading or telling stories about their books. The Kitchigami Regional Library system applied for and received a grant from the new arts and cultural heritage funding approved by the voters of Minnesota.

The festival featured some internationally known and respected local authors, such as former vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, fiction writer Will Weaver, watercolor artist Jane Freeman and BSU professor CarolAnn Russell, who read her poetry to a full house as the last speaker in the series. One Thunderbird Woman of the Loon Clan of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (Elaine Fleming) spun the story of how Cedar a name giver got his power. Black poet and author Sean Hill spoke of "Silas Wright" and cowboy "Deadwood Dick," shared tales that retold the history of racial discrimination and the triumph of the human spirit against all odds. Hill's parents, who came to Bemidji from his hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., watched with pride and empathy as their son spoke to an audience about being a black man in white America. Marion Dane Bauer, whose book, "What's Your Story? A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction," told how she uses the ends of her stories as her "bull's-eye" right from the beginning.

Brian Duren was the first guest author and he spoke about his first novel, "Whiteout," which is set in the Boundary Waters. Duren told how Pat Mason, an adjunct music professor at Bemidji State University, was instrumental in bringing him to Bemidji. This book is for those who are not bothered by detailed sexual encounters, incest, expletives and familial conflict, and who also admire fine writing. First-time published mystery author Beth Solheim, who works full time at Sanford Health, spoke about Sadie Witt, the owner of Witt's End Resort up here in the woods of northern Minnesota. All that may sound very ordinary but most of the guests are those who cannot make an easy transition from this life to the next. Speaking of that segment of our society, Larry Schug, former grave digger and current recycling coordinator for the College of St. Benedict, claims his various unconventional occupations have lent a richness to his writing. The winner of the 2008 $25,000 Loft Award in poetry, Schug claims his work is personal but not always autobiographical and is spiced with expletives that one either uses or doesn't.

Youngsters from the Bemidji Public School's Summer Kids Program got to listen to one of their favorite authors, Alison McGhee, as she read to them. This was a surprise up-close and personal experience for the children, who got to banter with one another and McGhee during the readings. This was just a sampling of the fine job done by the committee and its coordinator, Barb Treat, in bringing the book fest to Bemidji.

Former voice students of Fulton Gallagher went out on a limb with the hope of having an audience for the premiere performances of the Loon Opera Company. Abe Hunter took on the role of artistic director/producer and Andy Bowers directed two short operas by Gian Carlo Menotti; "The Telephone and "The Medium" were played to a full houses on two hot summer nights in a non-air conditioned Wild Rose Theater.

When Saarens Productions took over the Wild Rose Theater at the end of summer, their first production played to overflow houses with "Side by Side by Sondheim," a musical review of some of Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics. The audience was silent as Anita (Vicky Wangberg) taunted Maria (Julie Kaiser) and asked how she could love "A Boy Like That" who killed her brother. Maria pleads for understanding in "I Have a Love" and the audience reached for tissues. Kevin Cease brought the house down in "Gotta Have a Gimmick" from "Gypsy" when he sported a red sequined G-string. The production was a momentous start to a fledgling theater company in town, which followed up with an Equinox Duello with the Bemidji Swashbucklers, a film festival and an evening of one-act plays. Phyllis Diller wanted to get into the act, so she sent two pieces of her art to be shown in the Fleur de Lis Gallery upstairs at the Wild Rose Theater.

A year in review is an almost impossible task without having an entire edition of the Bemidji Pioneer devoted to the arts scene in town. The Bemidji Concert Series welcomed Midori, The Ahn Trio and Doc Severinson, an 85-year-old trumpet player who is still touring and with an all-Mexican group of superlative jazz musicians. They were just three of the internationally known artists to grace the stage at Bemidji High School. Not to be outdone, Maestro Beverly Everett of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra brought Thomas Jefferson in the person of Clay Jenkinson to the stage at BHS.

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse recalled the creative rivalry of Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and showed us tender moments in the lives of developmentally challenged adults in "The Boys Next Door." Of course, the Bemidji Area Community Band, under the direction of Dave Murphy, continued its long tradition of concerts in the park that always begin on Father's Day in June. Pat Mason and the Bemidji Chorale ushered in the holiday season with a new piece by Paul Brandvik on its program.

There are so many musical and theater offerings at BSU, but this year was special because two professors from two different departments, Erika Svanoe of the Music Department and Erik Evensen of the Design Technology Department, with their collaborator, Andrew Boysen Jr., presented a Minnesota premiere of a digital/musical composition, "Twilight of the Gods" a project underwritten by a consortium of 30 colleges across the country. The wife of the missing "The Butcher of Baraboo" was aptly played by Ceara Dowell and tormented by Jessie Ladig, the local sheriff who was investigating the disappearance of the butcher, her brother.

The "Golden Age of Radio" with vocalist Prudence Johnson and musician Dan Chouinard brought back many memories to the audience in this program that was conceived by the Minnesota Historical Society and hosted by our Bemidji Public Library.

Disney's "Aladdin" finished playing at the Chief Theater and Greg Gasman's "Christmas Carol" remembrances from past shows delighted audiences on the same stage. Jeremy Camp, an internationally known Christian singer, performed to a full house at the Bemidji Regional Arts Center, which is now named the Sanford Center. Today, "Elmo's Healthy Heroes" arrive in town for three performances.

Brigid's Cross Irish Pub and Restaurant hosts open mikes and trivia games to benefit local nonprofits and musical groups from the area and beyond. Pelican Railroad plays every week at Jammers and Backyard BBQ, and Uncle Shurley pops up here and there in Bemidji. The Hampton Inn & Suites has hosted monthly stand-up comedians for Comedy for a Cause, bringing in laughter while supporting local nonprofits.

Of course, art lovers never miss a First Friday Art Walk tour with libations, snacks and conversations with artists and each other.

If anyone ever says to you, "There's nothing to do in Bemidji," just give the look -- you know, the look that says, "Are you joking?"