Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lost Bears of Knoxville

When I moved to Knoxville in 2006 I spent a lot of time walking around downtown to go to the Farmer's Market:

basket of peppers

and find the parks:

empty rental

and landmarks:

sunsphere sunset

and theaters:

tennessee theater

and to look at the graffiti at construction sites:

starry night

and somewhere along the way I became kind of enamored of the Knoxville Art Bears.

The Art Bears were fiberglass sculptures painted by local artists and auctioned off as part of the 2001 Dogwood Arts Festival. Many of them were purchased by downtown merchants, and every once in a while when you were walking downtown you would stumble across one. The fun of it was that no one seemed to have an exact map of bear locations, to know how many of the original 30 were left on display, or how many had been added since then. They adorned sidewalks, walls, and a few lobbies, and it always made me smile when I saw one I hadn't encountered before.

Then the 9/11 bear came:

9/11 art bear

and people started protesting. The city decided to form a Public Art task force, and even though they initially said that no art already in place would be affected, the order eventually went out that the bears had to go. They're not the only thing that went; the city also lost a large treble clef and a huge Frederick Remington reproduction on Gay Street:

remington sculpture

but it's the bears I miss. Sure, some of them were a little tacky, but some of them had a sense of whimsy that's lacking in a plain sidewalk. They added a sense of charm to an area where the city wants to attract tourists, but then they were suddenly gone.

Some of the bears, though, escaped extinction. This weekend, at the Rossini Festival, I spotted the Italian bear on the corner of the opera stage:

Italian art bear

and it's not the only one that survived. The bear at the zoo escaped, hidden in the bushes above the black bear enclosure:

zoo art bear

and the one at the crew team boathouse survived the purge:

art bear!

I know there still was one inside the visitor center downtown after the culling, but those are the only survivors I've encountered. The 9/11 bear, the stained glass bear:

stained glass bear

the City of Knoxville bear:

state bear

the Bumblebear:


and a pink bear that I saw once but didn't take a picture of because I didn't have my camera with me are all gone.

I still get excited when I see one, since there are so few of them left, but it's a sad kind of excitement. We lost something unique to the city in favor of empty sidewalks and bare walls in a part of town that is slowly tranforming into industrial, identical, featureless lofts and condos. While it may have made foot traffic flow a little more smoothly downtown and it keeps a few people from having to see something that wasn't to their personal taste, I don't agree that what we gained was worth what we lost.

I miss the bears.


Elizabeth said...

I really loved those bears too. I like everything that makes Knoxville tacky. Lexington, KY has full sized painted horses all over their downtown. They are really cool. Pictures of the Knoxville "Bearfoot in the City" bears can be seen here:

amy said...

This should be published in the News Sentinel, Joel. I miss the bears and I'd say alot of others do,too. Start a campaign to bring back the bears with the new mayor!

Joel said...

Amy, I don't think the News Sentinel publishes blogs, but I agree that the bears should come back.

JMBower said...

Wilmington, Delaware had this same sort of deal, but with dinosaurs.

AS for the Public Art Task Force. God forgive us for ever letting art be the domain of a task force. When I need something invaded, or a murder solved, bring in a task force. But for art? And they got rid of a Remington?? For what possible reason? Classed up the joint too much? Afraid of offending cowboy-americans? Art by committee...always a good idea.

Thinkardin said...

But those bears and the cowboy statue and the treble clef were really cool things that beautified the city... what kind of yokels ran that task force?

kelewele said...

I was in Hendersonville, NC last week. I took photos with all the art bears I saw. I love public art. I can't believe that the city of Knoxville got rid of something that was used as a symbol of our city and was gifted to others. If you ever visit our Sister City if Muroran, Japan, one of the first places your hosts will take you to is their visitors center where the Knoxville Ambassa-bear is.