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Sharing stories of people
who chose Bemidji
as their town

Deborah Davis speaks for herself….. Why Gaea

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 33 Comments »

“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:

Photo by Julie Saari

Why Gaea

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.

Sob story

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.

Accept. Except.

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.

Holy Cow!

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!

Shut Down

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.

Spill It

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

http://www.mnartists.org/Deborah_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


33 Comments on “Deborah Davis speaks for herself….. Why Gaea”

  1. 1 Deborah Davis said at 10:56 am on January 3rd, 2011:

    The auction for all the beavers, done by myself and other amazing, brilliant, talented, and caring artists, will be held on May 21st 5-9 Hampton Inn.

  2. 2 Paula Swenson said at 11:14 am on January 3rd, 2011:

    The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason,we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation with out feeling. – Audre Lorde

  3. 3 Scott C. Knudson said at 11:57 am on January 3rd, 2011:

    What a powerful story… And a powerful artist.

  4. 4 Christina Thorne said at 12:27 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Touching and powerful. Thank you for sharing YOUR story with us. As we begin to know our community better, the stronger and more loving a community we can be.

  5. 5 Jennifer Filardo said at 12:45 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Deborah–
    Thank you for telling your story.
    Jennifer

  6. 6 Laurie said at 12:53 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    I’m confused … was the “I didn’t understand that some people saw genitalia” part of the Star Tribune quote below inaccurate, or missing some text? I took that to mean the painting was not meant to convey female genitalia. I am OK with the sculpture either way; I was more concerned with understanding the artist’s intent.

    “My intent was to paint Mother Nature, Mother Earth,” Davis said. “I didn’t understand that some people saw genitalia. … I understand people see different things in art, and they need to be free to do that. … My intent was to paint a praying woman.”

  7. 7 Al B. said at 12:56 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Thank you Deborah,
    The truth is a powerful force for good.
    You have blessed us with your art (truth).
    The art blesses us with a changed perspective.
    Peace, Al B.

  8. 8 Kathryn said at 1:01 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    We are survivors…all of us all of the time. Beautiful…interdependant…child like yet courageous…full of sorrow, sunshine and strength. We are…all of us all of the time.

  9. 9 Shylan said at 2:59 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Thank you, Deborah! I’m so glad you have inspired us, as a community, to step outside our comfort zone and talk, listen to each other. Thank you for taking that great big risk. You have helped us all to heal and grow in wisdom, honesty, and respect.

  10. 10 Carrie said at 5:25 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    As a childhood sexual abuse myself, my art has been my salvation. Deborah, you are an amazing woman and I am proud to know you. You have done what so many of us out there wish we could do- embrace our past and put it out there for all the world to see, and you’ve done so with class. Everyday I log onto Facebook to chat and socialize because face to face is so very hard for me. Deborah you are always there with a poem, beautiful photos and an outpouring of love.

  11. 11 Val said at 5:26 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Well said, well done.

  12. 12 Cindy Anderson said at 5:47 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Wow…thank you for sharing such incredible words and feeling with us. We are a fortunate community to have such visionary folk among us…Gaea is beauty and strength..

  13. 13 Beccijo said at 5:50 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Deborah you have always been more powerful then you have know. Your words are so true and as always go straight to my heart.
    Thank you for sharing your story, the world needs to know!

  14. 14 Deborah Davis said at 5:58 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Thank you Laurie for giving me the opportunity to be specific. That interview was done by cell phone as were nearly all of them. What I am sure I said is that I didn’t understand how people could ONLY see genitalia. And I did go on to try to explain some of the wholeness of what I wanted to express. Of course, even the WORD seemed to blank out any other point. I think the SENSATIONALISM was the immediate story. No one asked more. I was “the scoop” for the summer. And the excitement was the controversy, not so much the whole truth. We all like headlines and one liners these days.

  15. 15 Karen said at 6:06 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Much love and hugs to you. Thanks for your courage and honesty, it empowers us all.

  16. 16 Naomi said at 6:55 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Thank you for sharing your story. As a victim of sexual assault also, I could relate to your story & your daughter’s story.

    Thank you again for sharing,
    Naomi

  17. 17 Brian T. Hanson said at 7:57 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Well, it has been quite a year for you, Deborah, and I have enjoyed your friendship all throughout Beaverstock. The story you wrote is painful and honest and lovely and it is wonderful to have an open forum such as this so that you have the space to tell your whole story, unedited, and with your own voice. As to the art itself, that got this whole party started, I gotta say…I love your beaver! Peace, sister.

  18. 18 Cathy said at 9:19 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Deborah,
    Thank you for filling in the blanks. I loved the sculpture as soon as I saw it on Facebook, and I followed the furor with interest. Thank you for creating Gaea and for defending her against ignorance and hatred.

  19. 19 Melany said at 11:02 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Deborah,
    Thank you for the powerful story. It was very uplifting. I’m not a rape victim but I came very close one night. I invited the wrong guy into my apartment who began to “try” to rape me. Thank god my “now” husband arrived just at the nick of time and grabbed him by his scruff of his neck and kicked him out. This man who attempted to hurt me was supposed to be my friend. I guess I made the wrong choice. I hope that you continue to paint to uplift the spirits of not only myself but others who surround the Bemidji area and hopefully worldwide.

  20. 20 Alice Strand said at 11:31 pm on January 3rd, 2011:

    Deborah, your story tells the story of too many, in a very touching way. Thanks.
    I must say that after reading that, and then seeing the note that the beavers will be sold at auction, I am feeling like souls are being sold. I don’t know who gets the proceeds, or where the beavers will go,but I will miss Gaea and the others if they leave the streets of Bemidji. Somehow “sold” just seems wrong….

  21. 21 Debbie Dixon said at 7:45 am on January 4th, 2011:

    I feel that I have known you, even longer than we have been friends. You are a beautiful spirit, Deborah.

    “Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.” ~Willa Cather

    Thank you, for sharing your story. Thank you, for sharing your life.

  22. 22 Deborah Davis said at 1:50 pm on January 4th, 2011:

    Something to bear in mind for those who have gone through similar:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/health/04mind.html?_r=1&hpw

  23. 23 Karen Kimbrough said at 2:37 pm on January 4th, 2011:

    I completely understand how the media blew things up and misquoted you, Deborah. For people who don’t: imagine playing the old “telephone” game with string and tubes (the interviews over the cell phones) in an automotive chop shop (the media’s clip and save computer room where they type the article.) Then, be smaller media types that “borrow” the article and choose here and there what they want to print or not based on their owner’s political and/or religious views. Viola! You’ve got today’s media in a can!
    Deborah, you did the best you could in the middle of total chaos, while trying to keep your job and appease the city. What you failed to put into your story is that you live below the poverty level, put a lot of money into making that beautiful beaver, and will get pennies from the auction of it. You live hand to mouth, as many artists do, but you got belittled and attacked publicly for your art. You were never paid for any interviews or any of the fame, and will still be in poverty after all is said and done. WE OWE you for educating the public about rape and other sexual atrocities by painting Gaea. Thank you forever!

  24. 24 Debbie said at 2:42 pm on January 4th, 2011:

    Beautifully revealing and inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story, your art and your message; we are all better of because of you!

  25. 25 JT Liend said at 4:41 pm on January 4th, 2011:

    In a comunity of fragmented and insular artisans, your passion has unified and rallied them around something beautiful. It is probably funny to you that this, of all the work you’ve created, has recieved so much attention. It is my fondest hope and wish that your success continues and exceeds your wildest expectations. With any luck your Summer of Gaea will be the turning point where all your doors are opened and your visions realized.

  26. 26 Marilyn said at 7:56 am on January 5th, 2011:

    Oh my friend… how I feel your pain. I’ve been there, through all the different phases of abuse, (rape, beating, kidnapping) and I know the horror of trying to live through it in a community that tends to condemn rather than support. A church that turns the other way in your hour of torment (kidnapping), tells you to basically “suck it up” and move on.
    NO! That will not happen and it is not acceptable advice. We are ALL beautiful and wear that beauty in infinitely different ways. I have 3 sons, and I’m proud to say they respect women, you know this.
    My friend, I pray that our children know only love, joy, and peace… forevermore.
    Stand proud in what you create, and hold your head high with all that you say and feel. You are beautiful… I love you my friend.

  27. 27 Deborah Davis said at 8:29 am on January 6th, 2011:

    You are all so beautiful. I’ve heard MANY stories this past week via phone calls and email. Thank you for sharing, and I’m sorry parts of the world can be so cruel. And I’m thankful for you wise ones who know and do better.

    Karen, you’re right, there’s still a lot I’ve left out, not the least of which is what Gaea has cost… not just me. The emotional toll and toil was great for many, and the other artist’s sacrifices were untold and huge.

    And yes, I am in a constant struggle ever since so much was taken, everything else destroyed. It takes a long time to recover from loosing 22 years of savings and treasures, and my mom’s things gone. It’s hard to explain that too, that evil does sometimes win; though MANY of you shared similar stories. I appreciate those stories, and the understanding.

    It’s REALLY hard to understanding another’s circumstance. The homeless cannot understand wealth, their poverty so insistent. The rich cannot understand the dire, their wealth so looming. We each tend to despise the other, whether by envy or blame, forgetting that “there but by the grace and mercy of God, and the twist of circumstance, go I, go any one of us.”

    THANK YOU ALL FOR SHARING, WHEREVER YOU CHOOSE TO DO IT. I APPRECIATE IT !!!!!

  28. 28 Maggie said at 5:12 pm on January 6th, 2011:

    Deborah-
    I always wondered how much of that was true. I was hoping it wasn’t, because Gaea is SUCH a powerful piece. Please knoe that, and know that it added to the world, by breinging up the conversation.

  29. 29 Ron Hall said at 10:04 pm on January 6th, 2011:

    Quite a story, quite a life, quite an object d’art. I feel for you and all who have suffered at the hands of acolytes of the religion of ignorance and brutality.

  30. 30 Susan said at 10:14 pm on January 6th, 2011:

    Deborah what an amazing story. It is one I and I am sure many women can relate to. Who would have thought that we could we bound by such a similar and violent thread. I wish I had known you were going through all of this at the time. My place an always be a shelter to you if you need it. Thank you for sharing your story and the birth of your Gaea.

  31. 31 Sara said at 8:51 am on January 7th, 2011:

    Wow….I am so glad I read this. Deborah you are a visionary and thank you for your story and your art. Your work heals and brings light to dark places.

  32. 32 Julia Plum said at 9:59 am on January 7th, 2011:

    Oh, Deborah. I am so, so, so honored that you have shared your sacred story. I am crying tears of beauty this morning.

    I am so humbled and honored.
    Love,
    ~julia

    ps–Now I know I was not mistaken the many years I thought you were a writer. Your talents are extraordinary, Woman.

  33. 33 Johannas Jordan said at 7:05 pm on January 9th, 2011:

    Deborah,
    You are a strong and brave woman who gives voice to so much that many have suffered but can not yet speak.
    The way the members of your church treated you is hard for me to hear. I know many people who have been and are still being abused by religious institution and those who belong to them and I decry that. But I also know religious institutions and people who belong to them that are loving and supportive and I pray you will find those as well as the ones that harm.
    Thank you for sharing your story and for being brave enough and caring enough to create and share Gaea.
    It is sad that the fear people live with often finds expression in violence against others, such as you and Gaea experienced instead of the courage you found.


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