What will become of the Bear Spirit statue?
For 27 years, people outside of the Natural History Museum, near Seabright Beach, have taken notice of a nearly 10-foot-high statue of a nude man merged with a bear as they stroll through Tyrrell Park.
The fate of the statue is up in the air following a vote by the Santa Cruz City Art Commission to stop paying to repair the sculpture, the genitals of which have been repeatedly vandalized over the years.
Local artist Daniel Stolpe created the statue, named Bear Spirit, to illustrate a Northwest Native American ritual of taking on the spirit of animals in their environment. It has been perched on a three-foot high platform outside the museum since 1986, and also appears on the Smithsonian’s web collection of public art pieces.
“The idea of the Bear Spirit was a result of my involvement with the Northwest Coast Indians called the Swinomish tribe,” he says. “Through their initiation rituals I got the idea of man taking on the spirit of a bear.”
He produced a small model of the statue with him on an art tour in the mid ’80s and spoke to art curators in Tulsa, Okla. and Phoenix, Ariz. about housing the piece in their museums. However, upon returning home he decided the Natural History Museum was a perfect fit.
“The museum had some Ohlone baskets and other pieces of California history in the exhibits,” says Stolpe. “So I talked to Charles Prentice, who was the curator there, and he thought it was a good idea.”
The museum’s board of directors at that time voted three for and three against taking the sculpture. Prentice broke the tie, allowing Bear Spirit to be placed in the park outside the museum.
Today, however, the museum is a private nonprofit and the surrounding land is the property of the city’s Parks Department. Museum staff no longer has authority over what is or isn’t displayed there, according to museum volunteer coordinator Daniel Howell.
That responsibility lies solely in the hands of the city arts commission, which is led by local artist and City Arts Program Manager Crystal Birns.
“Every piece of artwork in the city has a lifespan because of the length of time the materials can last outside,” Birns says. She says that the city hired the group ARG Conservation in November 2012 to make an assessment of the public art collection and Bear Spirit, “which is made of fiberglass was flagged.”
She says that this prompted a vote in January to remove the piece rather than continue to fund future repairs to the current materials, or cast the piece in bronze. However, according to Stolpe, notifying him didn’t come up as a part of the process. He knew nothing about the plan until local activist Brent Adams brought the commission’s vote to his attention in early February.
Since then, Stolpe and the commission have been going over options for the statue, whose removal has not yet been scheduled. Possibilities include placing the piece in storage or moving it to the Museum of Art & History (MAH) on Cooper Street.
Stolpe doesn’t like either of these ideas.
“The [MAH] has much more modern sculptures,” he says. “I want to speak with a lawyer before making any decision to move it to make sure its spot right now would still be available.”
Adams believes that complaints about the nudity in the sculpture are the real reason for the planned removal. He posted a video on Youtube explaining the history of Bear Spirit and the drama of the serially embattled genitalia.
In the short documentary, Stolpe keeps a sense of humor about having to make repairs so often, but admits there were warning signs of trouble.
“I’m willing to keep repairing it,” he says. “[Damage is] kind of an indication of public sculpture. The Sphinx got its nose shot off. But the last time the [art commission] said they didn’t want to pay any more money on it, [they said] ‘It’s a public nuisance.’”
Neighbors have complained about the nudity to museum staff, or at least the “drama around the penis,” including the periodic vandalism, says Howell. However, Birns tells Good Times that the statue’s nudity played no role in the commission’s decision to remove it, and that the only reason they have for displacing the statue is because of durability issues.
The sculpture currently consists of a paper machete core covered in layers of plaster and fiberglass. Powdered bronze on the outer layer gives the piece its greenish tones and protects the fiberglass from degrading in the sun.
Stolpe says the original intent was always to have the piece cast in bronze but the original funding was not available and he did not feel an urgency to do that once he sprinkled on bronze powder that protected the fiberglass from degrading.
In response to the new controversy, he obtained an estimate for finally having this done. He says it will cost $38,000 and is looking for ways to raise the funds himself, including holding fundraisers (information about which will be posted to his website, nativeimagesgallery.com). As of this writing, he had already raised $1,000. However, he says his first step is to assure that its current home will be still be available once the statue has had its alterations.
Birns would not comment on whether the spot would still be available if and when Bear Spirit has been set in bronze.
Video by Brent Adams”