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Bearing Responsibility 

by Kevin Taylor


Life on the streets can be tough for a bear. Especially if it's bolted down to nearly a ton of concrete. Two of the fiberglass public art bears in downtown Spokane have already been vandalized, and a third has been damaged.


Organizers of the Bear Necessities project -- a fund-raiser for Ronald McDonald House -- did not publicize the instances of damage to the three bears. But local artist Kay O'Rourke feels silence can be just as damaging.


Civic outrage over vandalism to a similar street-art project in Coeur d'Alene last summer -- No Moose Left Behind -- prompted residents to keep a sharp eye on the herd of painted moose. Several moose were vandalized from the moment they were placed on the streets. One, "Rocky and Bullwinkle," was kidnapped and has never been seen again.


"I did one of the moose last year in Coeur d'Alene," O'Rourke says. "The difference between Coeur d'Alene and Spokane is that here nobody has said anything to the public. In Coeur d'Alene, they made a big thing about the vandalism and the community turned out to protect the moose."


Organizers of the Bear Necessities project say there is no policy to keep mum on damage. They have been swamped just getting 40 of the bears out on the streets while they also try to drum up sponsors and create maps and guides for the project.


"We did expect vandalism, and we still do," says Mike Forness, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Spokane.


As he researched the relatively short history of these street animal projects -- the Swiss city of Zurich kicked off the trend by placing hundreds of fiberglass cows on the streets in 1998 -- Forness noticed a trend.


"The trend we saw was less damage [to the art pieces] in early years and more in recent years," he says.


About 40 American cities have followed Zurich's lead with everything from 300 cows in Chicago in 1999 to weird giant fish in Erie, Penn., 165 pigs in Seattle and wolves and bison in Montana cities. The summer-long installations typically serve as a fund-raiser for charity. Artists are given free rein to decorate the animals, and the variety provides much of the charm.


Forness says he became intrigued by the idea, which pulls together business leaders and community artists and provides whimsy and delight for pedestrians.


"It's been a fun, exciting project, and it seems to be the talk of downtown," Forness says. "We really think this will be a success in Spokane."


Forness has been a man in a maelstrom during the last several months as he has tried to attract serious artists with a small stipend that basically covers the cost of materials. He has also tried to cajole business leaders to cough up $5,000 or $10,000 to sponsor a painted bear. Then there are the city sidewalk permit requirements and dealing with insurers who, in their gimlet-eyed view, see nothing but an attractive nuisance.


He figures the project has the potential to net between $100,000 and $200,000 for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Coeur d'Alene's No Moose Left Behind Project, with 26 animals, grossed well over $300,000 for the Excel Foundation, which benefits the CdA School District. Net proceed figures are not available.


O'Rourke's bear, "Cody and Blue Fishin'," was damaged almost as soon as it was placed in one of the project's prime locations -- the entrance to the River Park Square shopping mall. The bear features two attachments -- a blue heron peering over the bear's shoulder and a salmon leaping away from its encircling arms.


The salmon was broken, apparently by accident on Bloomsday, Forness says. Then it vanished. Everybody thought it was stolen until, by luck, River Park Square security guards mentioned they had removed it for safe keeping and had it stashed in a back room.


O'Rourke was overjoyed and says she can repair the fish in about a week. For the last month, the bear -- like a kind of ursine panhandler -- has held a laminated sign made by Forness that reads, "My first fish got away."


Two other bears -- "Cubs Scouting" by artist Debbie Hughbanks and "Bear a la Monet" by Frankie White -- have also been damaged, Forness says.


But the vandalism seems mild. Hubanks' bear had a scout cap lifted from its head. White's bear had a paintbrush wrested from its paw.


Forness says he's asked the kids at the Crosswalk shelter if they would act as scouts to keep an eye on the bears; in return, he gave the street kids a bear of their own to decorate.


The large, seated, fat-bottomed grizzlies have attracted admirers in droves, say people connected with the project. Passersby lean on the bears to be photographed, and children impulsively offer hugs.


O'Rourke takes the damage in stride. "I did all the things you're not supposed to do. I added all the attachments and made him so wonderful,'' she says. "I got carried away. [But] I think public interaction with the bears and the art that is on them is wonderful and important."





Spokane streets will be home to 40 painted grizzly bears until they are auctioned at a fund-raiser scheduled for Oct. 8. About half the bears are still available to be sponsored by local groups or businesses. For information, call (509) 684-0500 or go online to visit thebearnecessities.org





Publication date: 06/09/05
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