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Washington artist selected for new Chief Bemidji sculpture

Gareth Curtiss of Olympia, Wash., has been selected to produce a 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Shaynowishkung, also known as Chief Bemidji, based off of the models he produced for a local committee's consideration. One full-length sculpture will be produced; the model of his bust was offered to showcase the amount of detail Curtiss plans to include in the work. Bethany Wesley | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - With a Bear Clan pipe on his left arm and a diamond willow walking stick in his right hand, Chief Bemidji stands poised, looking out beyond that which is directly in front of him.

This is artist Gareth Curtiss' interpretation of Shaynowishkung, who was given the honorary title of Chief Bemidji by early settlers. Shaynowishkung was the first permanent settler in what would become Bemidji and the first to greet early white settlers when they arrived in 1888.

The resemblance between Curtiss' vision and descendants of Shaynowishkung brought relatives to tears last week. Donnie Headbird, great-great grandson of Shaynowishkung, recalled how his cousin Bev Raish began crying as soon as Curtiss unveiled his models of what will be the city's new Chief Bemidji sculpture.

"It was like my brother Gabby was looking right at her," Headbird said, referencing his late brother Gordon "Gabby" Headbird, who died in January 2011.

"I did not know this artist was that good," Headbird said.

Curtiss, of Olympia, Wash., was chosen to design and produce a life-size-and-a-half bronze sculpture of Shaynowishkung. He will be paid $70,000 for the new piece, which will replace the 60-year-old wooden Chief Bemidji statue, carved by retired lumberjack Eric Boe, that now sits in Library Park.

"(Chief Bemidji) sounded like somebody worthy to do a sculpture of," Curtiss told the Pioneer during a recent appearance in Bemidji.

Curtiss was chosen from three finalists Thursday after 12 members of the Chief Bemidji statue committee considered their proposals during sessions at Bemidji City Hall. Each finalist was given 45 minutes to present his or her model before the committee met over lunch to make a decision.

Within an hour, the committee came to a unanimous consensus, choosing to hire Curtiss based on his presentation and his two models. The models included a 37-inch full-body image and a 24-inch close-up of a bust.

"They were awesome," Headbird said. "They were so awesome they just took our breath away."

"We felt Gareth captured the best likeness of Chief Bemidji as an elder," said Sandy Kaul, co-chair of the committee.

Curtiss waited along the other two finalists - Steven Whyte of Carmel, Calif., and Ann LaRose of Tucson, Ariz. - in the City Hall lobby as the committee deliberated inside the council chambers.

"It's always a grueling process," Curtiss said.

The Chief Bemidji committee's recommendation went before the city's Parks and Trails Commission Tuesday, which unanimously agreed with the choice.

Mary Auger, a member both of the Parks and Trails Commission and Chief Bemidji committee, said committee members all had an "emotional response" to Curtiss' proposal.

"We just knew this was the right piece, the right artist," she said.

'It seemed like he cared'

Each of the finalists was given $1,000 to produce models of what they envisioned for a new Chief Bemidji sculpture.

Curtiss actually produced two models: one is a full body sculpture and the other is a close-up of the bust to showcase the detail in his work.

The finished sculpture will stand 9 feet, 3 inches tall, including the base. The sculpture itself will be 8 feet, 7 inches, which is the exact height of the current sculpture.

Curtiss' models were made with an oil-based clay that never completely hardens. Instead of shipping them to Bemidji and flying in after them, Curtiss delivered the models himself by car.

"It seemed like he cared so much for them," Headbird said.

Curtiss, with more than 30 years' experience as a professional artist, made the model bust a while ago, before he was even named a finalist. His was one of 23 applications from 26 artists for the project. He included in his initial application a picture of the bust.

funds still needed

It will take him about one year to complete his final work, Curtiss said.

But that work has not yet been commissioned as the committee still needs about $38,000 to pay for the final piece. Kaul said the committee has raised three-fourths of the total goal and is aiming to have all funds in hand by Sept. 1.

The timeline is working well in that the ongoing plan for the redesign of the Lake Bemidji waterfront is now underway. The plans for renovations at Paul Bunyan Park and Library Park include three potential sites to showcase the new Chief Bemidji sculpture.

Ideally, Kaul said, the sculpture will show Shaynowishkung overlooking Lake Bemidji.

Project brings hope

Area residents have been discussing the possibility of a new Chief Bemidji statue for years. The current effort gained traction in 2009, when local residents began informally meeting to discuss the existing statue, which now is planned to be relocated to the Beltrami County History Center.

The current statue, erected in 1952, was done in wood and fiberglass. It replaced the original 1927 statue by Gustaf Hinche, a Danish lumberjack, harness-maker, painter and naturalist, who carved it out of boards that were nailed together.

Headbird, who said he had no expectations of what the models would look like, commended the project and the committee members who have worked on its behalf.

Area residents always talk about the need to improve race relations in Bemidji, he noted.

"Maybe this will bring the relations a lot closer," he said. "I hope that it has all of our people opening their eyes to one another and everybody gets along a lot better. That is my hope."