Nancy Edmonds Hanson
They’re busy. They’re builders. They work together, building strong communities. And now they’re big, blue and attracting attention from young and old in W.H. Davy Memorial Park near the Red River in downtown Moorhead.
“Moorhead was looking for an icon. There’s not a lot of visual identity around here,” says artist Catie Miller. “We couldn’t do otters; Fergus Falls got them first. We didn’t want to do potatoes or dragons or corn cobs because they’re so firmly tied to other entities.”
“But there’s the Red River … and there are lots of beavers there – lots of them,” Emily Williams-Wheeler chimes in. “If you walk the trails, you see their handiwork all over.”
That inspiration led to “Breaking the Surface,” Miller and Wheeler’s response to the city’s Call for Art in June 2021. Once approved, all kinds of obstacles complicated their work, from pandemic-induced materials shortages and prices that zoomed upward to the rigors of creating a smooth, durable mold for the fiberglass construction. But like beavers, they persisted.
Now their colony of five stylized bright blue beavers has begun swimming through the grass of Davy Park at First Avenue North and Eighth Street. The public art project, one of the city’s largest to date, is already creating fans to the enormous solid, stolid fiberglass rodents in the popular park, site of RiverArts and other events.
Each beaver is 6 feet long, 3 feet tall and a yard wide. “We wanted them to be playful and approachable, big enough to attract children but not so big that they could fall and hurt themselves,” Wheeler explains.
Miller says her father was surprised by the finished sculptures – not their stylized shapes or size, but by their color. “He said, ‘I thought they’d be brown,’” she laughs. “Well, I just don’t do brown.”
The two artists share a taste for the whimsical. Miller’s forte is functional ceramics, though she’s branching out into two-dimensional art. She created the art on the outside of Fargo’s City Hall and is currently painting a mural on the side of Starbucks in West Fargo. Wheeler, on the other hand, has applied her imagination to canvases and other flat surfaces, from fanciful paintings of flowers and sheep to the four-season tree mural on the walkway over Broadway. Miller’s studio is in her home in West Fargo. Wheeler’s Studio e is located in the former Lincoln School in Moorhead.
The beaver-building project challenged both with a new medium. After shaping the original prototype in clay, they set out to carve the full-size version from a stack of insulation foam. They employed a range of unfamiliar tools to sculpt the – an electric sawzall (a reciprocating saw), hot wires, rasps, sandpaper. They poured plaster over the mound, then sanded it, repeating the process again and again.
“Fiberglass is hot and reactive. We did a lot of pouring and sanding,” Miller says. “We had to make it so hard and smooth that the fiberglass would come off. That meant softening the details.”
What next? They called the Dairy Queen to find out who made their giant Dilly Bar, and made arrangements with the same fabricator, Fiberworks in Buffalo, Minnesota. There, Lloyd Christianson made the mother mold for their five finished beavers.
“They look so good swimming through the grass, and they’ll be wonderful in the snow,” Wheeler says, eyeing their colony of distinctive critters. “We still have the mold. This could be the start of something big.”
To see more of the two artists’ work, visit their websites, www.catie-miller.com and www.emilywilliamswheeler.com.