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Council seeks consensus on Asaiah statue

Posted: January 29, 2014 - 5:31pm

For once, it wasn’t déjà vu all over again at a Homer City Council meeting. Unlike in October 1990, when angry veterans came to protest reconsideration of putting an American Legion Auxiliary veterans memorial in WKFL Park, this Monday when another decision about putting a monument in the park came before the council, no one yelled. Debate was cordial and polite. 

In that spirit, the council deferred action on a resolution to accept a donation of a bronze statue of Brother Asaiah Bates that would go on a rock at WKFL Park, the land once owned by Brother Asaiah at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and Heath Street. Council member David Lewis moved and the council approved that the resolution go back to the Public Arts Committee. 

The motion asked the committee to hold a public hearing at its Feb. 13 regular meeting so that the community could reach a consensus on where the statue should go.

The Public Arts Committee at a January special meeting recommended that the city accept a donation of a bronze statue of Brother Asaiah, the man who coined the phrase “cosmic hamlet by the sea” to describe Homer. When he died in March 2000, his obituary called him “perhaps the closest thing Homer will ever have to a patron saint.” 

Homer artist Leo Vait has been commissioned to sculpt the statue, a waist-up, life-size representation. It would be cast from bronze from a plasticene sculpture. Although the council resolution said it was an anonymous donation, the original application submitted identified John Nazarian as the benefactor. The statue would cost $18,500, including foundry and artist fees.

Brother Asaiah came to Homer in the late 1950s with the Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Fountain of the World, also known as the World Kingdom Fountain of Light. Known as the Barefooters for their practice of walking barefoot, the group built a homestead on 480 acres of land in the Fox River Valley. Helen Jackson, the last remaining Barefooter living in Homer, described the group as a humanitarian organization.

WKFL bought a machine shop at what’s now WKFL Park to work on its equipment and trucks, and Brother Asaiah later got the lot (see story, page 2). The city acquired the land in 1988 in a partial donation that paid Brother Asaiah $250 a month for life — about $36,000, less than its assessed value, by the time he died.

The debate wasn’t over accepting a work of art to go into the city collection, but where that art should go. At Monday’s meeting, friends of Brother Asaiah had mixed feelings on that issue.

“We need some way to remember him for the young people and those who are new to town,” said Bumppo Bremicker, who knew Brother Asaiah. “If it was a full-size Asaiah on a horse, I think he would be opposed to that, too. But a bust-size one would be OK.”

Michael Kennedy, another friend, said he didn’t think Brother Asaiah would want the statue in the park. The issue also raises a larger question of what is public art, Kennedy said.

“It made me think what a bust is about,” he said. “It’s a personality, not a principle … It’s almost ‘Saint Asaiah.’”

Kennedy said that also raises an issue of separation of church and state. Would there be a religious component based on Brother Asaiah’s spiritual beliefs? That was a point council member Beau Burgess picked up on.

“When we think about the question of putting something with a religious association in a public place, we’re treading on thin ice,” he said.

In a phone interview, Jackson said of Brother Asaiah, “Probably he wouldn’t want a statue of himself put up. Reasonably, logically thinking about it, that would be the place for it to be. He was one of the last leaders.”

Vait showed the council a photograph taken in 1996 of him making a clay sculpture of Brother Asaiah as he posed.

“He posed for me knowing it was going to go in a public setting,” Vait said. “He’s not handcuffed. He’s not chained.”

The Public Arts Committee meets at 5 p.m. Feb. 13 in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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