Grizzly bear (Photo by Thomas Drasdauskis)

Grizzly bear (Photo by Thomas Drasdauskis)

Ursa Major

How a bear made of pennies is helping BC's grizzlies

Ursa Major (Photo by Lisa Ferguson)

Ursa Major (Photo by Lisa Ferguson)

Lisa Ferguson's love of bears started at a young age. Inspired by their combination of affection and strength, the artist and photographer remembers first advocating for them as a child, pleading with her father to give up hunting the majestic animals.

“Fortunately he never got one,” Lisa says, concluding the story she tells in answer to the question of why she and her husband Robert decided to create Ursa Major, a fourteen-foot statue of a grizzly bear made out of steel, Styrofoam and 170,000 pennies.

“We wanted to pay homage to bears around the world,” she says.

Ursa Major at Burning Man (Photo by Lisa Ferguson)

Ursa Major at Burning Man (Photo by Lisa Ferguson)

The couple created Ursa Major as an honoraria project for the 2016 Burning Man festival. Reaching out to the Burning Man community allowed the artists to publicize their need for hundreds of thousands of pennies to create the bear's fur. Donations of American and Canadian pennies and even some Euros soon filled the Fergusons' studio in Alameda, California.

“People just started sending us their pennies,” said Lisa. “Nearly 100 people, including groups of folks from offices, brought in their jars of pennies. We posted all the donors on Facebook, to thank them.”

Supporting bear conservation

In honour of the generosity of all those donors, and to make a meaningful gesture on behalf of the real bears of the world, the Fergusons donated $2,000 to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in support of bear conservation efforts in British Columbia.

“Bears require large home ranges to survive in the wild, and our work at NCC is primarily securing, protecting from development and enhancing large tracts of habitat,” says Chad Townsend of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “Lisa and Robert's creative approach to raising awareness about the plight of grizzly bears is truly impressive. Their donation to support bear conservation in BC is very much appreciated.” 

The Fergusons' donation was made even more significant because they donated U.S. funds through the American Friends of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (AFNCC). This allowed their contribution to be matched three times over, raising a total of $8,000 for habitat conservation in British Columbia.

Learn more about NCC's bear conservation efforts in BC >

Building the bear

To construct the grizzly, Robert welded a steel frame that would be capable of supporting the finished statue, which would end up weighing about 2 tonnes once all the pennies were cemented on. They covered the frame in Styrofoam blocks, and then began carving it all into the form of a female grizzly standing on her hind legs and reaching one arm up towards the sky.

“She may simply be reaching for berries but perceivably she is reaching higher: to the northern sky and the constellation that is her name, Ursa Major. In navigation, the constellation is useful in pointing the way to the North Star. Ursa Major's pose is inspiring; she brings the gaze and hopes of the participant skyward. She also demonstrates respect for the bears and nature,” writes Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson (the couple's art name) on the Burning Man website.

The pennies were embedded in cement stucco and placed on their ends to create a textured surface. The tactile sculpture invites people to run their hands over the ridged “fur.”

“When you run your hands over it just right it makes a sounds like a kid's piano,” says Lisa.

Ursa Major was displayed at Burning Man from August 26 to September 5, 2016. Festival participants could walk up to and around the bear to experience her directly. The pennies reflected the bright desert sun, and her raised arm beckoned visitors from across the playa.

“People thought the bear was waving to them. There was always someone standing around her, touching her,” says Lisa. “We loved the reaction. So many said it was their favourite piece.”

After the festival, Ursa Major was sold to one of those admiring festival goers, allowing the Fergusons to make their donation to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and to plan for their next Burning Man installation. Their 2017 project will see the return of the bear, this time with two cubs in tow.

Learn more about these art projects at

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