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Where are Duluth's mini 'peace bear' statues?

Every six months or so, Wendy Wennberg gets a call about the "peace bear" statues, from someone asking what happened to them.

Bear sculpture
David Kemp of Duluth holds the miniature bronze replica of the Green Bear statue that he bought from the Duluth Public Arts Commission for $250 in the mid-1990s. It probably is worth more today. [AMANDA HANSMEYER / NEWS TRIBUNE]

Every six months or so, Wendy Wennberg gets a call about the "peace bear" statues, from someone asking what happened to them.

A limited edition of 300 miniature replicas of the Green Bear statue in Lake Place Park was planned in the early 1990s by the Duluth Public Arts Commission to promote and raise money for public art. Cast in bronze, they cost $250 each.

But few sold.

"They weren't a hot number; they weren't in hot demand," recalls Carl Seehus, who was the city's parks and recreation director at the time.

What happened to the unsold statues that had "Leo L" for Russian artist Leo Lankinen engraved in the base, along with the statue's casting number?

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If there are a couple of hundred bear statues left that didn't sell, selling them now could help the city's budget crisis, said David Kemp of Duluth.

When Kemp bought statue No. 17 in the mid-1990s, he was told that the Arts Commission was hoping to cast miniatures of other sculptures in the city's sculpture garden atop Interstate 35.

Recently recalling that conversation, he called the Arts Commission office to find out if other castings had actually been done.

"I was told no more castings had been made and that the bears didn't sell very well," he said. "I was told they went into storage somewhere and no one knows were they are."

At the time the first bears were cast, Wennberg was executive director of both the Arts Commission and the Duluth Sister Cities Commission. In that role, she coordinated sculpture exchanges with Duluth's Sister Cities. The works included the Green Bear statue, designed by two visiting artists from Petrozavodsk, Russia.

The artists, Lankinen and Valter Soini, worked at JA&M Studios Inc., a metal-fabricating foundry in Blaine, Minn. There, the large statue they designed was cast in bronze in 1991. Symbolizing the cycle of new life, the statue depicts a male and female bear contemplating a flower. The 7-foot sculpture also is said to symbolize peaceful co-existence between the United States and the Soviet Union.

At the time, Lankinen also designed a miniature model that was used to make a mold for more castings.

But how many were cast?

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Melissa Kadlec, who worked with the Arts Commission in the mid-1990s, remembers seeing a couple of boxes of them.

"I remember all these green bears," she said. "They were already made. I think they were all numbered. There weren't [a] lot that were sold."

For a time, some were on display for sale at Open Concepts Gallery on East Superior Street, along with other art by the visiting Russian artists. How many unsold statues were returned to the commission is unclear.

Kadlec bought the statue numbered "10/300" or 10th in a series of 300. The commission's only remaining statue, currently on display in Mayor Don Ness's office, is No. 20.

Kadlec has a vague recollection of boxes containing the statues being put into storage in an office in City Hall about 10 years ago.

"Who knows where they would have been put?" she said. But, she added, whoever moved them isn't likely to forget since they were heavy. Each statue weighs 10 pounds.

Since its days housed in City Hall, the Public Arts Commission has moved twice without taking more than one of the statues with them.

Over the years, commission staff have looked for the statues in City Hall. People interested in buying one have left disappointed. And members of the Arts Commission have talked about making miniatures of city statues, only to find out it was already tried.

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About 1993, when Wennberg left her job with the Arts Commission, 20 miniature Green Bear statues had been commissioned from JA&M Studios, according to 1992 commission minutes she still has.

"Maybe they did more of them later," she said. "It's most probable that the Public Arts Commission decided there would be a limited edition of 300 small bronze statues. But at the time, we didn't have the funds for something like that. I think we started with 20. But after 20, because they weren't selling, we were done."

That appears to be confirmed by those associated with JA&M Studios, though the business closed 1½ years ago after the death of owner Andy Guzik. While the records of Duluth's Green Bear statues were not readily available, Guzik's widow, Marge Guzik, remembers the statues and thinks only 20 of 300 were cast.

Andy's brother, Joe Guzik of Columbia Heights, Minn., who worked at the business and help cast the statues, doubts more than 25 were made.

Usually the artist decided on the edition number for such miniatures, and they would cast a few at a time as the orders came in, he said.

"They wouldn't be precast if they weren't selling," he said. "We didn't make a large run of them, I'm positive of that. They would place an order for, say, three at a time. As they were ordered and cast, we would add a new number. We would grind in the next number in the series."

If only 20 or 25 were cast -- and with the rubber mold long gone -- would the statues be worth more today?

"Definitely," Joe Guzik said, noting that the artist has since died. "Leo himself was well known in Russia. He has stuff in museums over there. His name would increase the value of them. And the value of art almost never goes down."

Do you have one?

Do you have one of the miniature Green Bear statues cast in bronze? Check its base for a series number and share it with news@duluthnews.com.

Related Topics: ART
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