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ART AROUND THE CORNER - The River Guardian

Artist Dewey Blocksma's River Guardian

IPR continues its "Art Around the Corner" series with a visit to The River Guardian on Traverse City's Boardman River. 13 years ago this August - hundreds of people turned up in downtown Traverse City for the unveiling of this sculpture. And just as memorable as the unveiling - was the contempt the work received. The River Guardian stands about a block away from the Farmer's Market which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the summer. Maureen Earl sells bread there.

Maureen says, "It's the canoe man. My kids are 17 and 19 now and whenever we've gone to Traverse City we go there and we visit him and we just, that's where we meet. That's where we sit."  

The River Guardian stands about 12-feet from its base. Its shoulders are made up of a green aluminum canoe as if it were a yoke. The head is a rounded piece of old, weathered wood. Its eyes are seashells. 

The artist who created the River Guardian, Dewey Blocksma, still has newspaper clippings from that time. He lives in Beulah with two talkative parakeets.

We Know What We Like 

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported that the city commissioners were "aghast" by the sketch Blocksma submitted. City Commissioner Phil Orth said, "You have to be kidding." Blocksma says the most memorable comment came from commissioner Jasper Weese.

Blocksma reads outloud from a clipping, "And here it says, 'A handwritten map on a wet cocktail napkin to a funeral home in Gary, Indiana would have more appeal than this sketch.'"

So, the city asked the public to weigh in. Blocksma made 3 little models of the Guardian - about a foot-and-a-half each. They were placed at the Dennos Museum, Horizon Books and the public library. And comment cards were made available. One said, "That thing is hideous." Another just said, "Get real." But by the time all the public comments were gathered, the ayes had it.

Blocksma says, "And we had numerous, numerous public comments that came in and I guess the final summation was that 77% was in favor so then the commission relented and they let me build the sculpture." 


About 30-feet away from the River Guardian stands its companion. It's a 15-foot high weathervane made of canoe paddles and metal bowls. A little metal porcupine is attached to the center pole as if it's climbing upward. Its quills are wire brushes.

The River Guardian stands just outside the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, overlooking the Boardman River. Doug Luciani is president and CEO of the Chamber. He loves the work but says his opinion doesn't exactly represent everyone.

Doug says, "I think it's fantastic. I love looking at it. It's visually interesting. It's got stuff on it that represents the area, canoes and paddles and to me it's a great piece of art because it's something that makes you think about it. But we have a lot of people that think it's horrible. They just, they just hate it."  

The River Guardian's weathervane represents the circle of life. And Luciani says it sometimes becomes a living sculpture.

Doug says, "It's become a great habitat for local birds and then lots of time during the summer, during nesting time you'll see on the paddles and the cups that go around you'll see where a dove or something has built a nest. It's actually nesting and sitting on eggs and this thing during the wind will just be spinning around and that bird's sitting in there just spinning around too."  

Literally Speaking 

All of Blocksma's art is in the style of the River Guardian: colorful, folksy and humorous with a liberal use of, well ... junk. And its best attribute - according to the artist himself - is that it's not realistic.

Blocksma says, "Some things were proposed like a bronze boy with a fishing pole sitting on the edge of the river and these, you know, are kinds of images which are so literal that in the art world they don't generally engender much enthusiasm. And there are other cities like Holland where they have put many literal images. I think there's Benjamin Franklin sitting on a bench feeding pigeons all in bronze. 

The River Guardian hasn't led the way for much more public art in Traverse City. The current Bayfront plan calls for a major piece of public art. In 2008, a proposal to put a contemporary sculpture there called "Time Myth" there was loudly shouted down. Nothing has been proposed since.