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Southfield calls dibs on Northland’s ‘Bear’ statue

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Marshall Fredericks’ Northland Center statue, “The Boy and the Bear,” could be at risk of being sold off in the 61-year-old mall’s slide into receivership.

Southfield officials, however, have vowed to do what it takes to keep the sculpture of a boy riding on the back of a bear, beloved by generations of children, from leaving the city.

At a press conference Wednesday, City Council President Sylvia Jordan said she found herself blurting out, “We want ‘The Boy and the Bear!’ ”

Acting Mayor Donald Fracassi, who knew Fredericks personally, said “I’m trying to stop it from being auctioned off. Maybe,” he added, “we’ll have a fundraiser.”

John W. Polderman, the attorney representing the receiver, said Thursday the aim is to sell the 110-acre property, which will be vacated by the end of March, but that no plans had been finalized.

“We are aware of the sculpture’s status and symbolism,” he added. “It seems like everyone has a memory of that artwork.”

Asked whether the receiver, Bloomfield Hills attorney Frank Simon, might be open to Southfield purchasing the piece, Polderman would only say, “All options are on the table.”

Fredericks, who died in 1998, is probably best known for the “Spirit of Detroit” statue in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, once known as the City-County Building.

Fredericks also sculpted “The Freedom of the Human Spirit” in Birmingham’s Shain Park, “Star Dream” in Royal Oak, and the Barbour Memorial Fountain at the Belle Isle Conservatory.

“Fredericks is a very significant 20th-century traditional, figurative sculptor,” said Marilyn L. Wheaton, director of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University. She added that “dozens” of concerned art lovers have called the museum in recent days to inquire about the statue’s fate.

“The Boy and the Bear” was one of three child-friendly sculptures J.L. Hudson commissioned for his new malls, Wheaton said. The other two were “The Lion and the Mouse” at Eastland and the “Friendly Frog” at Genesee Valley Center in Flint.

Fredericks, originally from Cleveland, taught at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1930s under the celebrated Swedish sculptor Carl Milles.

For Valerie Elliott, who grew up in Redford and went to Northland every Saturday with her girlfriend, the statue’s disappearance would constitute a huge loss. “It would be horrible,” she said. “Thousands of people have so many treasured memories associated with that sculpture.”

Wheaton said Polderman “assured me that under no circumstance would they allow anything to happen to ‘The Boy and the Bear.’ I took him at his word, and think he has the best interests of the artwork at heart.”