Robert and Lisa Ferguson like pennies.

They’d have to, considering the number of one cent coins they’ve used in their art installations over the years: 120,000 of them for “Penny the Goose” and 170,00 for “Ursa Major.” Another piece, “The Eagle (Let U.S. Prey),” was comprised of more than $1,200 worth of pennies, nickels, and dimes.

And the mother of all: 205,000 pennies make up Ursa Mater and her cubbies.


It’s this particular installation, lovingly known as “Mother Penny Bear,” that has graced Tahoe City with her presence since August 2018. She sits in Heritage Plaza, northeast of the Watson Cabin Museum, Lake Tahoe her backdrop.

Yet time is ticking for the copper mama bear and her cubs. The plan was to display Mater for one year in Tahoe City, and in summer of 2019 the Fergusons would bring her back to the Bay Area.  But nearly a year later, lo and behold, there’s a sticking point: Tahoe City is having a hard time with the break-up.

Since its installation, president and founder of nonprofit Tahoe Public Art (TPA) Steve Miller has witnessed the community and tourists — especially the kids — embrace the bruin family.

“I’ve watched countless numbers of children go up and touch it and play with it and interact with it,” said Miller. “The more I watch, it just felt like home [for Mater] and it would be a shame to lose it.”

BIG MAMA: “Ursa Mater” stands at a whopping 12 feet, with her cubs coming in at 5 and 6 feet. Photo by Alex Hoeft/Moonshine Ink

TPA is leading the charge to make the installation’s stay permanent, and Miller isn’t alone in his conviction. Vicki Kahn, a self-proclaimed “dyed-in-the-wool Tahoe City-ite” of 40 years, called Miller when she heard the art piece was on the clock.

Miller, Kahn, and other community members are currently working to inspire friends, family, and visitors to donate money to the cause.

The installation costs $65,000 to buy outright from the Fergusons. TPA’s plan is to utilize local grants and donations to come up with the money, encouraging community members and businesses alike to donate any amount they’re comfortable with, whether via check to TPA or through the organization’s GoFundMe page.

Those interested in donating larger amounts are broken into two levels: $5,000 for the Mama Bear Level and $1,000 for the Cub Level. But all amounts are encouraged, Kahn clarified: “We will take money from anybody, in any amount. We can be the Bernie Sanders fundraiser GoFundMe page.”

Mater has two very big advocates pushing for her home: The Fergusons themselves are on board with the city keeping her. When Miller initially approached the artists about installing Mater in Tahoe City, they leapt at the idea.

“We were tickled,” said Robert Ferguson. “It just seemed like a perfect marriage between our art and the beauty that is Lake Tahoe … I want her to stay. It couldn’t be a better spot for her … Any other place would pale in comparison.”

Purchasing the bear for keeps isn’t the only reason for raising money. TPA plans to install a bronze donor appreciation plaque with the names of $1,000 and $5,000 donors. Installing lighting and informational kiosks about the sculpture in Heritage Plaza is also on the table depending on the success of the fundraising efforts.

Sitting almost directly across the street from Mater is The Eadington Gallery. Manager Rory Canfield said he encourages all his patrons to visit the sculpture, and, more recently, he’s shared information about the kickstarter. Canfield’s connection to the sculpture goes back further even than when it was installed right across from his gallery: He saw it at Burning Man in 2016.

“I have a connection with it because I saw it out there and I was like, ‘Woah, this is amazing,’” said Canfield. “Then it appeared here. I’m just a proponent of the arts in general and I think Tahoe City would benefit (from keeping the sculpture). The more art the better in any town, by far.”

Canfield does want to see Tahoe City embrace more art, particularly from local artists, explaining that the facilitation of creative young minds would inspire Tahoe City’s return to “the mecca it was.”

“I think art brings people and I think art is essentially what makes this life experience manageable, beautiful, and what it is.”

Ursa Mater’s lease technically extends through July 31 of this year, but Miller explained that if the funding goal isn’t met by mid-June, he’ll put plans in motion to remove the piece at the end of June, especially before the Fourth of July crowds descend.

Kahn agreed: “It’s a big hassle to move it. They have to get Caltrans to come and block the streets because they have to bring a special vehicle to load it on.”

Mater’s next home if funding falls through?

“We really haven’t looked that far ahead,” said Ferguson. “I’m sure there is a place for her somewhere. At this point I’m just hoping that doesn’t materialize and that she can stay and the folks there will keep her. I have no problem coming and bringing her back if that happens, but I’d rather not.”

If money wishes aren’t met, plan to enjoy the grassy circle that’ll take her place — at least until another art piece is dropped in (Miller said he doesn’t know when that would be).

Who knows, maybe a penny will be left behind with lingering thoughts of bears.

Photo by Alex Hoeft/Moonshine Ink


  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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