Public art has an interesting obligation to both represent and appease the community it resides in, but by the nature of humanity, even the most neutral or innocent examples can attract controversy. When Donna Dodson breathed life into her eight-foot-tall “Seagull Cinderella” in 2012, she never expected that years later, it would prompt such dramatic responses in the coastal city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, when it was selected for public display in 2016. “Seagull Cinderella” has returned to her post for public display again this summer, but has the city moved past their grievances with the “bird with boobs”?
Dodson created the anthropomorphized, benign-looking seagull from styrofoam and cement, incorporating a buxom, distinctly human chest and a rather matronly floor-length skirt into the bird’s appearance. While Dodson typically does woodwork, “Seagull Cinderella” falls in line with the artist’s conceptual track of feminine animal-human hybrids with an imbued mystique of empowerment and sensuality.
“My idea is that the American princess myth about Cinderella focuses on a common girl who is not upper class,” Dodson told Hyperallergic. “I chose a common bird, such as the seagull, which is one of the most common types of birds that we see at the shore and near other bodies of water.”
“Seagull Cinderella” was selected in 2016 for display in New Bedford’s annual Seaport Art Walk, a summer-long outdoor art installation and festival along the city’s waterfront — and the birthplace of the controversy. Several New Bedford residents deemed the sculpture inappropriate for public display and opined that it painted the city in a bad light. One resident, Raymond Concannon, went as far as to write up a petition for the sculpture’s removal, calling it “ugly,” “embarrassing,” “tacky,” and “irrelevant to the city’s history.” The petition only amassed less than half of the desired amount of signatures, but fueled further public dialogue and a variety of hysterical counter-petitions requesting that the city “enhance the [sculpture’s] bust,” and “make the ass bigger,” poking fun at the puritanical pearl-clutching of Concannon and others.
“The drama surrounding the sculpture was embarrassing, sort of shameful, and ultimately kind of surreal to be honest,” Dodson explained when recalling the initial reception in 2016. “It made me think that as an artist, you have very little control over how your work is interpreted, especially in the public realm, and that you also have very little control over what you are celebrated for.”
Dodson specified that the mayor’s office would not concede to the removal requests and “Seagull Cinderella” stood along the busy downtown intersection along Route 18 in New Bedford through the length of the festival. She was also surprised by the outpour of support the sculpture garnered online and in person that drowned out the negative feedback.
“The best was when local artist Tim Blier made ‘Seagull Cinderella’ a Whale Companion that he called ‘The Princess of Whales,'” Dodson reminisced. “He made it because ‘Seagull Cinderella’ was being picked on. He wanted to make a friend to stand with her in the face of her controversy — it was very sweet!”
While local and national press had a field day with the “Booby Seagull” controversy, Jessica Bregoli, who selected the sculpture for the 2016 Seaport Art Walk, organized a “Save Seagull Cinderella” event in conjunction with Gallery X and Eric Johnson to uplift the voices of New Bedford residents who loved the sculpture a month after its public debut. Supporters and artists came equipped with stickers, t-shirts, collages, jewelry, and other such merchandise for sale, and the proceeds were directed to the Southcoast Centers for Cancer Care.
The sculpture was retired from Route 18 that October and was welcomed back to its home in Maynard, Massachusetts, by a 100-person parade.
Now, “Seagull Cinderella” has returned to New Bedford this summer for the 10th anniversary of the Seaport Art Walk. She has shed the Marilla Cuthbert-esque aesthetic that Dodson originally assigned her in favor of a floral bikini top and green patterned skirt. “Her bikini also reads as pasties or tassels, but mostly it is just brightly colored and fun,” Dodson said. But even with the new threads, the sculpture has reignited similar concerns about being “too sexy” for public display. Concannon’s petition, though no longer accepting signatures, is circulating again in light of the sculpture’s return.
Regardless, New Bedford’s city officials and the Seaport Art Walk organizers continue to go up to bat for Dodson and her sculpture. Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council that houses the department in charge of orchestrating the Art Walk, told Hyperallergic that he doesn’t know why “folks are so up in arms about it.”
“There’s no better way to demonstrate the vibrancy of a city than public art,” Santos continued. “We love it! We’ll defend public art at all times, and we love the fact that people continue to talk about it. One thing I really like is that she changes all the time — always wearing something new.”
“Seagull Cinderella” will maintain her post overlooking the traffic along Route 18 through October if you want to pay her a visit, but if you can’t make your way up to New Bedford, you can still show your support by signing the “Make the ass bigger” petition that’s still open …