“Hey Julie, don’t you live in Bemidji MN?”
A friend from LA asked me this via email this summer. He went on to explain he saw a story “about a beaver”.
I asked, “Was there a picture?”
He then described the picture. MY picture of Gaea is what he was looking at in an LA newspaper. The story of Deborah’s “beaver” and my picture also made it to places like the New York Times and other major circulations. Our small town was suddenly (if only momentarily) famous…… for our “beaver”. However, there is more to this story. There is an artist that painted the beaver, a real life person.
Misquoted world wide, Deborah Davis speaks for herself today on This is my town: Bemidji. Please do not think this was easy for her. I have been asking, no, begging her to write her side of the story since early summer. I am honored that she took the time and stepped out of her comfort level to write her side of things. Please take the time to read the real story, not the hyped up, joked about “beaver story” that spread across the nation and some parts of the world.
Please embrace Deborah Davis:
Deborah Ann Davis
Why yet again?
I’ve never gotten to tell the real story. I’m not sure entirely why. I think mostly people don’t like hearing these things. We get uncomfortable. And we should. But if we don’t hear them, maybe nothing will ever change. I’m supposed to tell you why I painted Gaea, why I think she impacted women and the community the way she did; I’m supposed to tell you the real story since near everyone who has covered it so far has in some way mucked it up: added something untrue, taken out a too truth. I think the only way to tell you is to tell you that every piece of art takes a lifetime to make. I think Gaea started when I was really young.
Abuse is nothing new, and we’re all sick of victim stories, so I’m going to tell a few more. Bear with me; there’s a reason. When I was 8 my cousin and brother babysat while my folks were out. My cousin kept telling me I was beautiful. Now, any girl will know how that makes you feel: 16 year old cousins make you swoon anyway, and Jim was a surfer. He told me I looked like Ann Margaret. Later that night he snuck up to my room and tried to show me how beautiful he thought I was. This sort of thing changes you. You feel marked. You shut up. That’s what I did. I spent the next several years of my life stuffing everything I could inside, just so I wouldn’t spill my guts.
There Was a Bar and a Church
I ran away from home at 15, lived with my sister’s family in a small North Dakota town until I turned 18 where I graduated with honours. Then I got my own apartment. I was as afraid and naive as I was at 8, but for some reason, a single girl with her own apartment starts rumors. One night a stranger jumped me as I came home from work. He was drunk and I fought him off, but small towns are funny. A deterred rape is the same as opening a whore house I guess and I was labeled loose, immoral and shameless: funny since I’d not said yes to sex yet, but that was how it was. It’s easier to label a woman than to understand this mercurial ferocity some men aim at them. During and after college I went through a few relationships. I floundered some. Then, my dad called and told me he was dying, to come home and help take care of mom, who was never able to take care of herself. I did the right thing. I moved to Tenstrike. There was a bar and a church, so I became a Christian. I married a man from the church; I had my daughter; I was safe.
Except, I wasn’t. The abuse began right away, except, nobody admitted it was abuse: not me, not him, and certainly not the church. I was told that if I submitted enough, prayed enough, served enough, I could change him. “If I could be Beauty, he could be a changed Beast.” “Accept Deborah,” everyone kept telling me, “Accept.” Except… I couldn’t. There was something missing in this “scheme of things” we were all buying into, this “male pride and ego,” this “boys will be boys,” this “man is the boss” thing. What was it? And, I realized…it is the woman, and the woman’s point of view. Thus I began a 20 year research project into Women and Spirituality, particularly Christianity.
It was survival first, then I found a few surprising things. One is, oddly enough, a key name for God in the Old Testament is the precise key name God calls Woman in Genesis, the one men have used for centuries to shut them up.
Something was dirty in Damascus!
I found more: Deaconesses translated as Helpers, authorship of books of the Bible hidden, and most earth shaking of all, the missing piece of the Triune Godhead was very, very feminine.
Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man!
Women’s emotion, intuition, care, and tenderness is not only God given to humans, but a third of God. I won’t give you a theology or history lesson here. Suffice it to say I realized that all this viciousness, this silencing, this grave and urgent need to keep woman in her place and ashamed of herself came from her being one of the most glorious, splendid, freeing aspects of all Christianity, and as earlier and later research showed me, this is true in all spiritual and religious history across all belief systems. But alas, not a soul wanted to hear it.
“Is there anywhere a man who won’t punish us for our beauty?”
-Poet Diane Wakoski
About the time I began incorporating this research into my life choices, had saved enough to finally leave my husband as my daughter started her freshman year in college, everything fell apart again. She was raped, a victim of the “Freshman Hit List” on campus. When the interrogations began, the police wanted to know what she’d been doing, saying, and wearing. They recorded, in inches, how high her skort was above her knee. She was wearing fairy wings; apparently this immediately made her suspect of being a seductress. Out of all the women I talked to about the rape, only one didn’t have a rape story herself, usually they had several. Rape is a devastating thing. It was no different for us. BSU then had, and may still have, a policy they call Student Conflict Resolution. It involves rapist and victim meeting in a room to discuss how they can work out their conflict. We had to have a judge make an injunction against that happening. I felt like I was back in that little town in North Dakota. How far we HAVEN’T come!
I am great in any crisis, but in between the crisis moments in the aftermath of a horror of a marriage and my daughter’s rape, I began to shut down. My husband, for once, reacted in a typical male fashion. Even 14 years of counseling couldn’t stop his fury. Every night he raged, threw furniture, plates, me… whatever he could get his hands on. I’d left him often, always undercover of shame. It was my dirty little secret. I always came back. I returned to save farm animals and dogs from death and to rescue mom and things. People helped me. I’d sleep in their galleries, businesses, campers and on their couches and spare beds. I left. I told no one except those with who I stayed. I returned in time to make a Sunday meal or pretend with visitors or my daughter.
Be a Lady. Good Girl.
As a girl I was well schooled that when people hurt me it was my fault. At the church I’d learned that it was always the woman’s fault. We all have learned it, even if we don’t believe it. And I wanted, all my life, for us to unlearn it. I wanted some peace and freedom. But this time, I was told by my husband’s counselor I had to put on a united front for our daughter and come home. Again, my ladylike goodness would somehow save us all, except me. The thing is, it didn’t save her either. This strange system of silence, yes perpetrated by women too, was not saving us.
Paying Through the Nose/and Every Other Body Part
For some reason women are paying a debt we don’t owe. We are being abused for our beauty and spirituality, and I realized I had to speak. I’d tried at church; I’d tried at home; I’d tried in the legal system. I tried with Art. The first show was about female genital mutilation. I’d listened to stories about it from women who came to Concordia Language Village when I lived there. It was an eye opener for many who didn’t know how brutal and how lasting the emotional and sexual effects were. Then I did the Skin show. And then I painted nude women with no hands, no faces, no feet. It was how both my daughter and I felt after the rape.
You Got Your Ears On Good Buddy?
Then the beaver project came up. I wasn’t going to do it. By then, I’d left my husband. He’d taken everything of value, my childhood treasures and my daughter’s, my savings and my soul. While I was at the battered women’s shelter and sneaking naps on the couches of friends, he’d filled my home with bags of garbage ceiling high. Every time I called the police I was told the same thing. His name was on the deed too. “It’s a man’s world,” I was told by one of the workers at the shelter.
All I had strength and time for was to work to clear out and survive. He had made sure I had no well for water, no furnace for heat, and he’d not paid taxes for 8 years. I had other things to do besides art. But one by one, local artists who knew…. Who KNEW… began to call, email… frankly, to harass me into doing this beaver project. So, on the last hour of the last day, I threw some things together and applied.
I never once said part of the beaver sculpture Gaea wasn’t vagina, though I was often quoted as saying it after the first ringmaster of the 3 ring media circus said it. What I did say, when asked, was that Gaea was about the wholeness of women, their strength and beauty, sexuality and spirituality. I said as much and as little as I could. I work for the city. It was an uncomfortable position for awhile let me tell you, the city being the one ultimately put on the spot for a piece of art I made! I was told by one above me that I should choose: not making anymore art or to be on the schedule.
I’m Just a Soul Who’s Intentions Are Good.
Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
I did not set out to offend, only to educate; not to make ashamed but to expand. I think Art should make us see, and question, bring us closer to who we are, and even who we should be. I understand everyone’s part in the play that became Gaea Summer. We all want to make nice, cover scary things. Sometimes we need to see, rather than cover though. I thought it was time to see.
Sticks and Stones
In the end I don’t own Gaea. I always knew that and signed a contract agreeing to it. I don’t own any woman’s story, but I think they should be told, and they should be heard. Both parts are hard to do, and I think we’re doing a terrible job of it. We women have learned to silence ourselves if someone else doesn’t do it for us. We’ve learned how to behave. We pass the feminine off with names like girly, beaver, chick, lady, helpmeet, whore, wife, mom, victim, feminist… And women are so much more. We all are. That’s the magnificent thing!
I’m Just an Artist Who Painted a Beaver
Gaea doesn’t come from a place of hurt. She comes from my past, yes, but more she comes from my faith, and what I know about all faiths. She comes from a place of healing, and this is what I hear again and again from women when they see her. She touches them. Women tell me she gives them wings, makes their heart soar, frees their soul. Men tell me that she makes them think differently, and many say she’s beautiful. I’m so glad! I am just an artist who painted a beaver, that’s all; and I’m a woman with a story, like us all. Let’s keep talking, and listening. No new good comes from the old silences. Keep talking. Keep listening. Love.
Deborah Ann Davis
The auctuon of Gaea and all the artist painted beaver sculptures will be May 21, 2011at the Hampton Inn, Bemidji MN. 5pm-9pm
The rest of the beavers can be found on
This is my town: Bemidji HERE