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ART

In New Bedford, the ‘sexy seagull’ is ruffling feathers once again

The controversy over artist Donna Dodson’s ‘Seagull Cinderella’ sculpture has been reignited this summer.

Some New Bedford residents want to remove artist Donna Dodson's sculpture "Seagull Cinderella," which returned this year for the city's 10th anniversary Seaport Art Walk.handout

In 2016, a busty, 8-foot statue of a seagull in a skirt scandalized residents of New Bedford. “Seagull Cinderella,” artist Donna Dodson’s half-woman-half-bird entry into the city’s annual Seaport Art Walk, stirred controversy as soon as it was unveiled in its summer home along Route 18. Some felt the gull’s breasts were “inappropriate” for public display — and this year, with Dodson and her bird back in New Bedford for the 10th anniversary of the art walk, the squawking has resumed.

When “Seagull Cinderella” first landed on the South Coast, a petition to remove it collected almost 400 of its intended 1,000 signatures. Comments on the petition, which recirculated this summer but has since closed for signatures, expressed outrage over the gull, which some perceived as “ugly” and “disgusting.” One commenter wondered what the sculpture “has to do with New Bedford, except maybe a panhandling prostitution ring . . . Why not a whale? Or a ship? Or anything else but a seagull with boobs.”

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In the meantime, news reports of the “sexy seagull” have swirled around the statue like a frenzy of sea birds over a french fry. But what exactly is so “sexy” about “Seagull Cinderella”? Could it be what Dodson calls her “matronly” floor-length skirt? Her firmly pursed yellow beak? Her beady green eyes? Or is it simply that she has two concrete mounds on her chest, which happen to protrude into the salty New Bedford air as proudly as a beam of light from nearby Palmer Island?

“People obviously project a lot of stuff onto the sculpture,” Dodson told the Globe in a phone interview Tuesday. “This idea that it’s not safe to have breasts in public, it seems really silly. And puritanical.”

Earlier this year, when New Bedford curator and artist Jessica Bregoli asked Dodson to bring her sculpture back for the anniversary celebration this summer, Dodson hesitated. Was she really up for another round of bird backlash?

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"Seagull Cinderella" was joined in New Bedford by artist Tim Blier's "Princess of Whales" after facing backlash from residents.Tim Blier/Courtesy of Tim Blier

But in the seven years since the petition first emerged, the voices of support have drowned out detractors. Dodson says fellow artists from the community created smirking counter-petitions urging her to “enhance” the bird’s bust and bottom. Bregoli even organized a sale of “Seagull Cinderella” merch to show support for the statue and raise money for Southcoast Centers for Cancer Care.

Another artist, Tim Blier, made a companion sculpture, “The Princess of Whales,” to keep Dodson’s bird company, she said. And this December, the sculpture will be received in Maynard, where Dodson lives, as an honorary guest in the holiday parade, she added.

“Seagull Cinderella” now looks slightly different than she did in 2016. Her breasts are painted over with two pink daisies, which could be read as a bikini or pasties. Some people have interpreted the flowers as a capitulation to the outcry and an attempt at modesty, though Dodson likes them because they’re more “in your face.”

With public art, she noted, the artist generally has very little control over how a piece will be received.

“What kind of art do we want to see in public spaces? Who gets to be celebrated and who gets to be worthy of public dialogue?” Dodson asked. “It’s really positive that art can be that place to have that conversation.”

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Dodson, who has a show called “Sheroes” opening at Boston Sculptors Gallery in SoWa Aug. 30, said her original vision for the sculpture was to take a common bird and imbue it with the elegance of a princess. If anything, she said, “Seagull Cinderella” is a more playful, goofy extension of her other projects, mostly woodwork and other large-scale public art, which use goddess imagery to exalt the female form.

For its revival this year, Dodson embellished Seagull Cinderella's chest with daisies, which can be read as a bikini or pasties. Dodson likes them because they're more "in your face."Donna Dodson/Courtesy of Donna Dodson

“I feel like women are sort of separated from our bodies psychologically and emotionally, and we reject our physicality, our animality,” she said, adding that her work is “a celebration of all women; it’s not a specific woman, it’s womankind.”


Emma Glassman-Hughes can be reached at emma.glassmanhughes@globe.com. Follow her @eglassmanhughes.