'The Juggler' CoverArtist: Deborah Ann Davis celebrates the strength and beauty of what it is to be a woman
by Norma Smith Olson
Some say men wear many hats, but cover artist Deborah Ann Davis realized one day that women carry many bags-diaper bags, workout bags, evening bags, grocery bags, lunch bags and store bags. "We carry, we juggle so much. We juggle family-extended and immediate, elderly parents and grandchildren. We juggle their needs and expectations. We juggle lovers, home, work and children and every extension of them as well.
"I used to fear that the sun and moon wouldn't rise for my family if I hadn't been there. I guess that's what inspired 'The Juggler,'" Davis said. "I think that she's the center of the universe, holding it all together." Davis has a 24-year-old daughter, a nearly 2-year-old grandson, and cares for her 90-year-old mother. "I'm the juggler," she said.
While Davis works part time as a city of Bemidji liquor store clerk, art is her full-time passion. These days, her artwork is done primarily with paints, although she's also worked with clay, photography, fabric arts and dollmaking. She took art classes as a student at Moorhead State University, but she said, "I think my greatest asset is my ignorance, or to put it nicely, my naiveté. Sometimes it helps me see a little more 'new.'"
Davis' paintings are mostly of women. Through her artwork she paints messages that women are brave and intuitive and spiritual and sexual. "We're new and we're ancient. We're more than what you see," she said.
Davis found herself juggling a media frenzy last summer, when she was chosen as one of 10 artists to paint large fiberglass forms of beavers for Bemidji's sculpture walk. The beaver is the city's adopted mascot.
Some people objected when Davis' womanist sculpture went on display, claiming that it was pornographic. Many felt that the art displayed female genitalia. For Davis, her sculpture, "Gaea," is "a celebration of all that it means to be a woman. Gaea means Mother Earth. She is one of the many feminine aspects of God. Very common in all religions and history," Davis explained in an interview last summer on KAXE radio.
Davis' beaver sculpture made a bold statement with symbolism. On its back is a tree representing a woman's arms and all that she holds up. Two icons on the sides represent night and day. Images suggesting the cycles of the earth, the universe, our cycles as people in life and symbolism of apples, birds in flight, Minnesota's lady's slipper, the sun, the moon, stars and strong colors fill the sculpture. Front and center-and the center of the controversy-is what Davis described as a praying woman, eyes closed, with rose petals flowing from her hands.
"I didn't expect anyone to call anything I've ever done pornographic or obscene. That would never be my focus," Davis said on KAXE.
Gaea "disappeared" shortly after her installation. But, a groundswell of community support followed. During the city's Fourth of July celebration, the other artists draped their beaver sculptures in black cloth as a sign of solidarity. A man stood as a sculpture in Gaea's place during the holiday parade, not moving a muscle.
At that time, too, calls came in from around the world and a media frenzy ensued, mostly misquoting Davis and making cheap jokes. A "Bring Back Gaea" campaign, started by Davis' daughter, went viral. Within a few days, the Bemidji city council unanimously approved the reinstallation of the Gaea sculpture.
The chaos of last summer's installation calmed down over time. The Bemidji beaver sculptures will be auctioned off on May 21. "It seems that what happened is that this has inspired intellectual conversation," Davis said. "I really do think it has inspired open thought about how we can look at things differently and speak differently. I think it's ultimately been good."