Art on the move

Two very large polar bears, longtime residents of Ashland, are seeking a good home.

Sculpted in concrete 36 years ago, they have tried to adapt to the parking lot of Lithia Springs Inn on Highway 99, but the inn is shifting to an upscale spa-pool theme — and polar bears just don't fit in, says longtime co-owner Duane Smith.

Smith commissioned the work in 1976 from Ashland sculptor Leo Vait and said he has adored the giant mama bear and her closely bonded cub. But now he wants to donate the pair to a responsible school, church or nonprofit organization that will appreciate and take care of them — and let them be visible to the public.

If he can find no takers, Smith said, he will let the bears go on Craigslist or would have to destroy them.

It appears, however, that the bears will live on. As word got around, both ScienceWorks and Havurah Shir Hadash expressed interest and are researching how they would fit with their missions and where they might be located.

The vigilant mama bear and cub were among the first works of Vait, a Minnesotan who came to Ashland in 1966. He went at the project with a lot of energy, digging a foundation, installing re-bar and pouring concrete, Smith recalls.

"Leo was a true artist. I saw his wood sculptures of seals hanging in Jazmin's (a former jazz-dinner club on Lithia Way) and I wanted something for the landscaping of Dr. Jim Dunn's office," says Smith, a major landowner in the area of Butler Ford.

"Leo showed me a plaster model of the bears and I said 'go ahead.' We thought it would be about 3 feet high. Soon I realized we were talking big bears, 8 feet high. It was hollow inside and he had a cement truck come out and fill it."

Over the last 30 years, Vait has established himself as a sculptor, both for galleries and architectural devices, such as fireplaces and waterfalls, in Homer, Alaska.

"I'm pleased someone is interested in the polar bears and appreciates them still," said Vait. "I had a fascination back then with marine mammals and how they streamline themselves for swimming."

Vait owns Leo Vait Stone and Timber Works in Alaska. His online art page (found at shows haunting tribal and futuristic themes, and notes that his work appears in many public and private collects around the world. Vait has been featured in the On Home and Garden channel's Modern Masters series.

Smith paid $2,500 for the polar bears — about $10,000 in today's dollars, according to online calculators. He moved it to its present location in 1983, using a crane from Batzer Construction capable of lifting 50 tons. He estimates the statue weighs 2 or 3 tons.

"It's an amazing piece of art, absolutely gorgeous and I can't imagine it not being on display someplace important," said Chip Lindsey, executive director of ScienceWorks. "We'd love to have it. It would be a lot of fun.

Lindsey expressed only one reservation.

"We have to make sure it wouldn't be an attractive nuisance that kids would slide on and scrape themselves up," he said.

Rabbi David Zaslow of Havurah Shir Hadash, an early friend of Vait's in Ashland, said, "It's got swirling, flowing beauty and would be great here. We're looking into it. We've got an acre of land. I'm asking the board about it. Polar bears might be a bit of a stretch at a synagogue. It might be better for ScienceWorks."

However, Zaslow said, when he posted a photograph and asked for opinions on Facebook, he got almost 50 responses — overwhelmingly positive — about locating the bears at Havurah.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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