A longtime staple of the city’s downtown culture, the Ames Annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition has attracted unusual controversy this year after a Public Art Commission jury selected a bronze sculpture of a nude woman by Minneapolis artist Kimber Fiebiger, titled Wide Open Mind, for installation downtown on the corner of Douglas Avenue and Main Street.
Earlier this month, a yellow beach towel was placed over the sculpture. Later, for humorous effect, Iowa State University design students “yarn-bombing” the nearby Design on Main building crafted a bikini for it.
The city has received four or five complaints about the sculpture since its installation this spring, according to spokeswoman Susan Gwiasda.
“Why don’t you just rename the thing Wide Open Crotch? Because it’s really a sickening thing.”
Reached for comment, members of Ames’ downtown business community said they hadn’t heard many, if any, complaints about the sculpture.
Cindy Hicks, director of the Main Street Cultural District, said this week that she was at a conference in Milwaukee but personally hadn’t heard any complaints.
“Art is subjective to individual views,” she said in an email. “What one person considers beauty, another may consider vulgar. You are never going to make everyone happy. What this piece has done is inspire a lively conversation and debate about art in our community.”
Heather Johnson, executive director of the Octagon Center for the Arts and PAC vice president, said she was familiar with the controversy surrounding the sculpture but wasn’t aware of any complaints directly to the Octagon from residents who may have mistakenly believed the center was in charge of the annual exhibition.
(Members of the PAC jury, which Johnson helped assemble, are independent of the commission itself.)
Sarah Buss, the Ames Chamber of Commerce’s director of sponsorship and membership programming and former chair of the PAC, told the Informer that the Chamber hadn’t heard anything other than “just general comment regarding all of the sculptures.”
However, emails obtained by the Informer through a public records request suggest otherwise.
On May 12, Heidi Petersen, principal clerk in the city manager’s office, emailed Buss to let her know that “yet another resident of Ames” had called “about Kimber Fiebiger’s sculpture ‘Wide Open Mind’ …..or the so-called ‘naked lady’.” The resident, Petersen explained, told the city that she “walks by it several times a week with her 10 year old son, and on their walk last night, she noticed it had been covered up with a piece of fabric. She suggested that it needs to be covered up until something can be done or it can be removed.”
Buss forwarded the message to Johnson, adding that she “also had a lady who wanted to be anonymous but she had somehow got ahold of my cell phone number, call me and express her distain [sic] for the piece.” In the email, Buss proposed removing the sculpture: “Are we able to get the piece sent back since the artist didn’t represent the piece well in their photo? Could we replace it with an alternate? My thoughts are that as the festivals kick up downtown we will get more feedback. What are your thoughts?”
“I do think the artist misrepresented her sculpture,” replied Johnson, who added that there was still time to find a replacement sculpture to promote in brochures that were being prepared for summer festivals downtown beginning with the MSCD’s ArtWalk on June 3. “And I have heard other negative comments as well.”
An Ames resident later submitted an email criticizing the sculpture’s presence downtown after a massage parlor prostitution bust last week and in light of the city’s “sex slave trade,” possibly a reference to Youth and Shelter Services’ efforts to raise awareness of human trafficking in Iowa:
The statue on the corner of the second block of main street is in very bad taste; especially with Ames in the news for prostitution and sex slave trade. The statue promotes Ames as a place where women are devalued, degraded and disrespected. I do not understand the reasoning behind picking this statue for an area of Ames that is supposed to be family friendly. Thank you
“Jeez, that’s the opposite of what the statue is about,” Fiebiger said, after the Informer read her the email. “It’s about being in charge of yourself, you know? The magic of being in touch with yourself and your body and your posture. I think it’s a very strong posture. It’s more about confidence — it’s about self awareness, more than anything. … It’s a woman that’s really — one of the things she’s very comfortable with is her sexuality.”
Fiebiger said she hadn’t been aware of the controversy. Upon hearing about it, she joked, “It’s the people without the wide open minds” who have taken offense.
Another complaint, from a man visiting Ames with his family, was left on the voicemail of Assistant City Manager Bob Kindred, the PAC’s staff liaison:
Hello, hi. I haven’t seen any comment about the sculpture Wide Open Mind on Main. We just brought our family here for Mother’s Day, my mother and others, and my wife is commenting that — and [inaudible] description: It’s grotesque, disgusting. I almost regret bringing my family down here, and all that they were spending today. But the brief time that I was standing there, another family with strollers, and younger people, and older people — the effect, I’m going to paraphrase, was sort of, “Look away.” My wife is a teacher, so she’s surprised that certain [inaudible] would, in fact, react and maybe be treated inappropriately.
So anyway, I think it’s disgusting, grotesque. Why don’t you just rename the thing Wide Open Crotch? Because it’s really a sickening thing. There’s nothing wrong with sex, but the way this is portrayed, it’s a horrible, ugly thing.
But we love Ames, and, you know, it’s a great downtown area, and we have a long history here, and we know a lot of people, so thank you for receiving this comment.
In an email to the mayor and City Council, Kindred wrote, “After the sculpture was delivered, it was discovered that the front of the sculpture has a fairly accurate portrayal of a nude female.” This came as a surprise, Kindred explained, because Fiebiger had only submitted one image of the sculpture in her application. “Both they [the PAC jury] and the PAC relied on that photo to make their recommendation,” he wrote. “Some of the PAC members thought the sculpture was a depiction of a bird.”
Fiebiger said she only submitted the single photo “because I actually liked the back side better, because I like my concept. It’s called ‘peeling the onion,’ as you get into your core self. I just think the back side is stronger.”
She added, “The other one I submitted was a cute little boy in a birdbath, so I was kind of glad that they picked the stronger piece.”
Wide Open Mind, Fiebiger said, was representative of a large part of her body of work, which is “strong, confident females.” (Fiebiger’s other trademarks include bronze sculptures of Humpty Dumpty and court jesters.)
“There are statues all over where men have their private parts out. It’s sad that we aren’t comfortable with female sexuality.”
Kerry Dixon, facilities project manager at ISU and the PAC’s current chair, said promotional brochures including Wide Open Mind have already been printed and that there are no plans now to remove the sculpture.
In an email responding to Buss’ suggestion that the sculpture be removed, Dixon wrote: “I’m kind of in agreement with you. I like the piece, but would it have been selected had the front side been represented, that could be a question for the Jury. I’m a little concerned about second guessing the Jury and what that says to the art community about our process.”
Speaking to the Informer, Dixon said, “Personally I like the piece. It’s a very strong piece. I just think there are a lot of very beautiful things about the piece.”
Dixon added that the PAC plans to clarify its guidelines for future AAOSCE applications so that artists have to submit enough photos to fully display their sculptures.
“I just think it’s really sad that, you know, if you go up to Rochester Mayo [Clinic], there are statues all over where men have their private parts out,” Fiebiger said. “It’s just really sad that we aren’t comfortable with female sexuality. And then there’s the opposite, which is porn, and society kind of accepts that. There’s a whole business based on that.
“They just aren’t comfortable with strong women, I guess.”