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New Kansas City Children's Literature Museum Uses Pandemic Shutdown To Give Artists Creative License

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Each Tuesday Travis Smorstad shares an adventure with the children’s book characters finding a home at The Rabbit hOle.

The Rabbit Hole, an immersive museum dedicated to children's literature, won't open until 2021. The focus now is on building a team of designers, fabricators and artists to create scenes and characters.

Earlier this year, The Rabbit Hole finished the second phase of renovations on its journey to transform a North Kansas City warehouse into a magical space where the characters of children's literature come alive. But, then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

"Like everybody else, we were taken by surprise," says co-director Pete Cowdin. "But we quickly realized we had some options, in so far as we're not open yet. So that's actually a kind of a blessing in disguise."

In April, instead of forging ahead to the final phase of construction, the museum's leaders made a pivot. Plans to open the museum were pushed to 2021, and hiring artists and creating exhibits became the immediate focus.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Rafael Morales-Silva works on one of the giant LED bunnies planned for the roof of The Rabbit hOle.

On a recent visit, artist Donald Ross, better known as Scribe, looks up at a larger-than-life-sized horse that he’s been spray painting in a studio. It’s the main character, a policeman, from the book called “Robert the Rose Horse" by Joan Heilbroner.

"And so there's a scene in the book where he's directing traffic, and we decided to illustrate that one," Scribe explains. "And we made him eight-feet tall and strong enough for a kid to hang on."

The Rabbit Hole is envisioned as an immersive experience, like City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, or Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a focus on children’s books.

Julie Denesha
Outsized children’s book characters like Perez and Martina are on standby until the museum opens. “Perez and Martina” is a Puerto Rican folktale by Pura Belpré and illustrated by Carlos Sanchez.

Earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit, Scribe left Children’s Mercy Hospital after nearly two decades there as a muralist to spend more time on his own work. He finished writing his third book in March, and the illustrations will likely take another year.

But one of his two kids attends the same school as the youngest son of Cowdin and Deb Pettid, who owned the Reading Reptile children's bookstore in Brookside before launching The Rabbit Hole "explorastorium" project.

"I dropped my son off one time, they were doing a film project," Scribe recalls. "And I actually walked out of here, completely shook up about what they were doing here and inspired."

Scribe, now a lead fabricator, is one of a growing number of artists The Rabbit Hole has hired in recent months.

Julie Denesha
“Katy No Pocket” is a kangaroo from a children's book by Emmy Payne and illustrated by H. A. Rey.

On a recent morning, Rabbit Hole founders and co-directors Pettid and Cowdin walk through the cavernous warehouse.

"So right now, if you were to come in, there are a lot of objects, right?," says Pettid, as she navigates around characters like the kangaroo, Katy No-Pocket. "Single sculptural pieces that, as time moves forward, will be part of a larger environment."

They stand next to a large hole, which will feature a "kinetic life-size" steam shovel, Mary Anne, from the classic book, "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" by Virginia Lee Burton.

"This is a cool corner because that’s going to be a beautiful, vibrant blue background to 'Caps for Sale,'" describes Cowdin. "And then a New York street scene coming up behind Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan."

Julie Denesha
Leigh Rosser tests out the rotating mechanism in the bear’s belly. The bear is from the book “I Want My Hat Back” by Jon Klassen.

Those are just a few of the familiar characters that will pop up in temporary and permanent exhibits now in development at The Rabbit Hole.

"You know, what we’re building here is we are interpreting other people’s work," says Pettid. "So not only is it a privilege to be able to do that, but it’s a responsibility."

Julie Denesha
Travis Smorstad perches Bill, the crocodile, on his shoulder. Bill is a character from the book "Bill and Pete" by Tomie dePaola

Inside the fabrication studio, what's called the Rab Fab, lead carpenter Travis Smorstad works on a model crafted from layers of cardboard and modeling clay. This grotto will serve as the entrance to the museum.

"And this is our entry ramp here, so you’ll walk in and see this kind of large limestone formation, some kind of balancing rocks," he describes. "You’ll be able to walk out on these platforms and kind of view this area."

Smorstad, a Kansas City Art Institute graduate, says his career took a lot of twists and turns before The Rabbit Hole.

"I've been an art handler and a carpenter, (I) did a little bit of digital design," he says, "so I've kind of been all over the place, but, I'm a maker and it's been really kind of amazing to be able to put all of those skills to use here."

Julie Denesha
Travis Smorstad balances a box on the back of a pink elephantfrom the book “May I Bring A Friend.” Each Tuesday Smorstad shares an adventure with the children’s book characters finding a home at The Rabbit hOle.

Early in the pandemic, during the stay-at-home orders, when he was one of the few artists coming into the shop, Smorstad says he started taking some of the storybook characters on an adventure to the park or out in the rain.

It's become a weekly post on social media called Travis Tuesdays.

"Well, there’s "Katy No-Pocket," who always wants to hang out, and "No, David!," is a little bit of a problem," he says. "Everybody kind of gets along, but "No, David!" always throws a wrench in things."

Julie Denesha
A bath disaster is in progress for David from the book “No, David!” by David Shannon.

In mid-September, The Rabbit Hole launched a fundraising campaign to hire 10 to 12 additional designers and fabricators by the end of the year. Their task will be to transform characters from books and imagination into exhibits made of wood, metal and foam.

The museum has plans to invite the public inside to see the progress, offering small tours with social distancing and masks.

"I think it's just a nice opportunity to just have a little bit of lightness and joy and fun," says Pettid.

The Rabbit Hole will also take this time, Cowdin says, to learn from other museums in their response to COVID-19.

"Because we are going to have to adapt to some of the new psychology of parents and families, and that's not going to go away," he says. "There's going to be a lingering impact of COVID, and we want to create a space that feels safe."

The third and final phase of construction is scheduled to start in January 2021, and the museum is expected to open in late summer or early fall.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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