What happens to old public art in Bemidji

Sometime between ice out and the dreaded first mosquito hatch, a new crop of public art sculptures sprouts up along the streets of Bemidji.

This summer marks the 16th year of Bemidji’s sculpture walk, a program that brings a few dozen three-dimensional pieces to the city’s downtown every year. Sometime in mid May, the familiar welded steel and shaped stone objects are carted away and replaced with new stuff.

The arrival of new art signals winter’s end — and the beginning of tourist season.

But where does the old art go?

Well, in the case of Dale Lewis’s 10-foot, 160-pound stainless steel crocodile, it gets strapped to the roof of his Honda Civic.

A 10-foot, 160-pound stainless steel crocodile rides on the roof of Dale Lewis’s Honda Civic. John Enger / MPR News

The Hastings area artist built his croc a few years ago from bits of electrical boxes. Before finding a temporary home on the corner of Fourth and Beltrami in May of last year, the croc lived atop Lewis’s green Civic.

“It wasn’t great for gas mileage,” he said, “but it sure attracted a lot of attention.”

With the croc temporarily placed on a downtown Bemidji street for the past year, Lewis mounted a much lighter sturgeon sculpture on his car, but it didn’t draw the same concerned stares. Now the sturgeon rests on the croc’s old sidewalk mountings and Lewis is happy to have his old traveling companion back.

This new sturgeon statue will spend the year on the corner of Fourth and Beltrami replacing the ‘croc’ as part of the city’s sculpture walk. John Enger / MPR News

Another of last year’s statues will find a permanent roof-top home. A winged pig welded from scrap iron by Stillwater-area artist John Hughes spent the year on the corner of Third and Beltrami outside of Italian restaurant Tutto Bene.

During that time restaurant owners Justin Frederick and Jerusa Ricke grew attached to the pig, even naming him Billy after a deceased pet.

Billy the pig will find a new rooftop home as Bemidji’s public sculpture walk pieces get their annual summertime shuffle. John Enger / MPR News

Now Billy is absent from his street corner, replaced with a work by Aberdeen, South Dakota, artists Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby — a pitcher, bronzed forever about to send a fastball through the front window of Tutto Bene.

This baseball player will grace one of Bemidji’s downtown streets for the next year as part of the city’s sidewalk art program. John Enger / MPR News

Billy didn’t go too far though. As spring neared, Frederick bought the pig. Right now he stands hopefully on the restaurant patio, but Frederick said he plans to bolt Billy to the roof of their building by the end of the summer.

“I have to get the thumbs up from a few people in city government,” he said, “but we want Billy on the roof.”

The Bemidji sculpture walk is one of the oldest in the Midwest according to program president Al Belleveau. Even Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which he called the gold standard of sculpture walks, is younger.

This year Belleveau brought in more than 20 works, but there are many more pieces from previous years on permanent display — more than 50 within the city. He said the program brings in a lot of beauty for a small price tag. His yearly budget is just $8,000, mostly donated by local business.

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