Donna Dodson’s sculpture, “Seagull Cinderella,” is of a very regal and human-looking seagull, with upturned yellow beak, bold, petal-patterned dress, and a proudly pert pair of breasts. The gull appears to be a racy Mother Courage of the skies.
This eight-foot sculpture has been stationed in Dodson’s backyard in Maynard, Massachusetts, where locals welcomed it, and others used it as a useful geographical locator. It has traveled to other waterside locales, including Provincetown, Brooklyn, and the shores of Lake Michigan.
But its arrival in the city of New Bedford, at the junction of Route 18 and Elm Street, observing traffic from a modest wooden plinth, has bought controversy, after a 31-year-old teacher, Ray Concannon, began a petition seeking to have it removed.
So far, in a city of over 95,000 residents, his petition has attracted 395 supporters; backers of the sculpture say support for it to stay far outweighs the naysayers.
“Seagull Cinderella” is one of 13 sculptures in place as part of the Seaport Art Walk, running through October.
“I believe the statue should be removed not because it is offensive but because it is ugly and reflects poorly on our city,” Concannon writes at the petition’s homepage. “I call on the mayor to more closely oversee the art exhibit in the future.”
South Coast Today reported that Concannon was driving home with his children when they alerted him to presence of ‘Seagull Cinderella” by saying, “Look at that duck with boobs.” He told the publication, “It’s a joke or ugly and it’s embarrassing to New Bedford.”
Public art often arouses controversy: Most recently, objections were raised over a cast-in-bronze statue of two young women taking a selfie in Sugar Land, Texas.
“I never said it wasn’t art, but it is bad art,” Concannon writes at his petition’s site. “Good art is part of the New Bedford culture. Tacky is part of tacky… and this sculptor is from BOSTON. While some cultures have represented concepts such as fertility through breasts, this piece has no intention or relevance to anything except being ‘whimsical.’
“The exhibit was a surprise even to the city council. It may well not represent the seaport. Good art can include nude art; David and Venus, for example, elevate one’s thoughts to higher things, the human condition.
“Where does [seagull] direct your mind, soul, or emotions when you see it? For most people it seems to evoke mild disgust or juvenile humor. Is this what our city is about? All the tourists to the ferries, whaling museum, and local cruises go by the seagull.”
Dodson is in Alaska visiting her in-laws, and is observing the brouhaha from afar.
“I’ve been very surprised,” she told The Daily Beast. “We had it in our front yard, and it was a magnet for artists, and people used it as a landmark when going to places ‘before or after the sculpture.’ It was somewhat beloved, and inspired people’s curiosity. I’m very surprised by the reaction it’s gotten in New Bedford, but public art can be very difficult. Some people have conservative tastes in art. They like representational, realist works, and anything abstract or conceptual is more challenging.”
The cement sculpture came to be, she says, when she was making the imaginative leap between mythological, fantastical figures and creatures we know.
She chose Cinderella as “a quintessential American princess story,” and wondered what if she had become a mom after marrying Prince Charming. And… become a bird. “Some people don’t want to imagine that, everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Dodson says. “But this is a temporary project. You can take risks. And this statue has always been near water: there’s a relevance there.”
Meanwhile, debate simmers online: at the People of New Bedford Facebook page, for example, views range from “All hail the great Boobgul!” to “What an eyesore,” to “I love it. It makes me giggle when I see it and my kids always laugh about it. It appears to not only bring curiosity but also a smile to the awkwardness of it!”
Dagny Ashley, the city’s director of tourism and marketing, told The Daily Beast that the sculptures had been sponsored “by several public and private groups, including local residents who contributed to the project through a GoFundMe Page.”
New Bedford, Ashley added, “is widely recognized as a center for arts and culture… The local art community has been working hard to find ways to increase displays of public art… I encourage everyone to come to New Bedford, check out all of the sculptures, talk and discuss with friends and form your own opinion about the pieces on display.”
At Concannon’s petition site, opinion is also mixed. “I just feel this is not a beautiful depiction and also silly & unnecessary. People should actually work on getting a healthier image & relationship with women’s breasts and not end up with these stupid unnatural ones on this gull!,” one author writes.
Another: “It is a terrible thing to try to silence an artist’s voice. In this time of extreme divisiveness we should be weary of anyone who would seek to censor or destroy art. Art is meant to challenge and to evoke strong emotions. Art is not experienced universally the same nor should it be. Do not let the voice of ignorance destroy the freedom of expression, or you may find they come you next.”
Dodson said there were three petitions now circulating to keep “Seagull Cinderella” in place, and praised the bravery of the Seaport Art Walk’s curator, Jessica Bregoli. The pieces will stay up until October without question, Bregoli told the Daily Beast.
“I’m an artist, too, and a curator,” she said. “I try to do things that are appropriate, so I don’t lose my job, but I do not see anything wrong with this sculpture, and nor did anyone else on our committee, and a lot of them aren’t artists. The issue for him [Concannon] is the ‘boobs,’ which is the word he used, and he says it’s ugly. Three hundred and ninety [signatures] is a small number when over 95,000 people live here. I’m not worried about it.”
Bregoli said the controversy has led to organizers planning to do a larger-than-normal closing ceremony to the project come October.
“None of us are upset by this,” she said of Concannon’s efforts to scupper “Seagull Cinderella.” “There’s much more positivity than negativity: most people on social media love it.” A pro-“Seagull Cinderella” sticker campaign will soon be underway, in which people will be encouraged to color in an outline of her any way they like, then wear it or put it on their fridges. All proceeds will go to a local breast cancer research initiative.
To Bregoli, a fan of anthropomorphic art like “Seagull Cinderella,” the piece represents regality. “She’s proud, she’s standing up. She’s beautiful, she’s pink. It’s a very pretty, happy, silly piece. Who can’t look at it and not laugh about it? There’s such negativity in the city, she’s also a great mood-lifter.”
However, given the publicity around the statue, Bregoli said the authorities were now looking into installing cameras and perhaps a spotlight near ”Seagull Cinderella” in case she is vandalized.
Dodson told The Daily Beast, “The internet is crazy. Some people have made threats. They are definitely in the minority: one or two among thousands.”
She had approached Concannon “to have dialogue,” but he declined, she said, saying that Dodson didn’t have the power to take it down, so he did not want to talk to her.
She is happy to debate the merits and demerits of “Seagull Cinderella,” she said, as she did not want people to feel “disempowered and ignored.”
“It’s going to come down in October,” Dodson said, “I’d say to anyone who doesn’t like it, ‘You’ll never see it again after that, but what about all the people who like it? Are you going to take it away from them?’ I feel like it belongs to everyone right now. I don’t represent any bureaucracy. I’m an artist, he’s a teacher. I’d like a conversation: all these issues are so interesting.”
Dodson noted she has another statue up in town, inspired by Moby Dick, but “it’s not female and doesn’t have a bosom. It makes me think this is all about the statue being noticeably female, with breasts.”
So, she feels there is misogyny behind the complaints? “It feels that way, although I don’t want to assume the worst.”
Still, Dodson laughs, “Seagull Cinderella” herself “seems pretty oblivious” to the controversy raging around her. “I would hope the community either loves it, or tolerates it until it comes down. My town is upset I took her away. I have gotten emails from people asking where she is, and that if New Bedford can’t handle her I should just bring her right back.”
Dodson adds that after all this drama, she may well have a welcome home parade for “Seagull Cinderella.”
Whatever happens, there is now a petition, so far supported by just one person, “to remove Ray Concannon from New Bedford,” with the stated reason: “Too many ignorant people in New Bedford. Gotta start somewhere.”