"When it was originally named "River Goddess," people started to think it was a pagan thing," says Sally. "Big trouble." The name was changed to "River Guardian," but some people still haven’t been assuaged. "What makes people so angry is they think they’ve been outsmarted, or made a fool," David says. "They were expecting a Norman Rockwell bronze cast of a little boy fishing."
There were those who greeted the addition to the riverfront warmly. Especially children. "You almost never have an argument with kids about Dewey’s art," says David. "It immediately makes sense to them. And they don’t care that he was a physician – they take it at face value."
Some people find Blocksma’s work crude. But his idea of beauty allows for some rough edges. That’s the humanity in it, that goes back to his ringside seat watching his father’s operations in Pakistan, of damp nights in the emergency room.
"You take eight hours on a hot summer night when the place is really hopping, you hear things you don’t need to remember for 20 years. But that was a privilege. I honor that," Blocksma says. That’s where the dark side of the comic comes in. He has put back together bodies wrecked by other humans, and he can no longer take conventional ideas about beauty for granted when he builds his own human figures.
Blocksma recalls the moment on a hot African night back in 1966 when he realized that beauty isn’t the same to everyone. He and another doctor took the battery out of their Land Rover to get a radio going and kicked back on the Lake Victoria beach to watch the sunset. "The villagers pointed and laughed at us. We were so used to sitting around in our lawn chairs to watch the sunset, but everyone doesn’t have the same attitude about the sun," he says. "On the equator it’s so hot and abusive, they can’t wait for it to go away for the day."
The quarrel about beauty and perfection is one Blocksma says he will continue to take up in his work. "Being the son of a plastic surgeon, I saw the hazards of chasing perfection. I saw the legitimate and the superfluous, people who were slaves to perfection, living in boxes. To a lot of people, anything that is ambiguous is threatening. Art can be threatening," he says. "I’m asking people to come out of their box, maybe make it bigger, or step out of it – just for a little while."
You can see Dewey Blocksma’s work at Tamarack Craftsmen Gallery in Omena and at Judy A. Saslow Gallery in Chicago.
Emily Betz Tyra is associate editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.[email protected]
Note: This article was first published in June 2004 and was updated for the web February 2008.