“The Lively Arts in Kansas City”

This short story of mine first appeared in the January 7, 2009, issue of Present Magazine, which was an arts and entertainment ezine in Kansas City that has since retired. The story makes many local references, some of which are probably lost on readers who don’t know my home town, but I think the idea of the story is evident and appreciable. I first thought of this idea when I considered what the Botero statue, La Pudeura, featured in the story would want if she could speak. It flowed easily after that.

Let me know what you think of it.


“The Lively Arts in Kansas City”


Paul Lamb

Had anyone been paying attention, the first moments of the interesting events that summer might have been noticed. One sultry evening two legs of the gigantic Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture in front of the Kemper Museum slipped off their concrete pedestals and rested lightly on the grass.

Some blamed the vernal equinox. Others sought signs in the weather or the general state of moral decay. But most people didn’t give the matter much attention once the shock had passed, and after all, these were the kinds of things most people never gave much attention to before anyway.

The ensuing surprise was spectacular. Commuters driving up Main Street the next morning were astonished to see a giant steel web strung between the twin American Century towers and the Bourgeois spider resting at the center.

Traffic was thick as gawkers marveled at the stunt. Yet the novelty passed quickly as people remembered, while stuck at the lights on Main Street, that they had jobs to get to, that they had errands to run, or that they were missing their favorite shows. By mid-day, the crowds had diminished, and only those who deliberately drove by to see the spider added to the regular traffic, and that wasn’t many since by evening everyone realized the whole thing would be on the news.

Frenzy at the Museum over the free-spirited spider was doubled when it was realized that the other Bourgeois sculpture, a dog-sized spider mounted on the wall beside the entrance, was also missing. A quick search turned up no sign of this sculpture, and for the present it was considered lost, though the staff stapled flyers to telephone poles in the neighborhood reporting a little lost spider and offering a reward.

Nonetheless, the museum opened that day as it normally would, and soon after, the Botero statue standing before Kemper East, La Pudeura, a zaftig bronze woman who had for years been trying to hide her shame fore and aft with pudgy hands, jumped down from her pedestal, tugged her heavy feet from the yielding earth, and was off.

The Crying Giant statue was also stirring to life. He sat on his plinth, holding his head in his cartoonish hands and blubbering audibly. He gave his head an occasional shake, looked up inconsolably, then fell back into his hands to renew his wailing. As La Pudeura passed him, she hissed “Oh, grow up,” then pushed on.

La Pudeura added briefly to the carnival on Main Street, but her purposeful gait warned the gawkers to get out of her way. “Look at that fat, naked statue,” someone in the crowd guffawed, but her single-minded, clanging stomp down the sidewalk showed she wasn’t intimidated, so the crowd lost interest and turned back to the spider. This being Main Street, a large hole had been dug in the pavement, and an orange plastic fence was strung around it. La Pudeura confiscated the fence fabric, wrapped it around herself with evident relief, and continued down the hill.

Farther uptown, more artwork was stirring. Having been on the march in the same place for more than 70 years, the collection of figures known as the Pioneer Mother, began bending and stretching to work out their sore muscles and stiff joints.

Intended to honor the families that had joined the Westward Expansion, these two men and a woman with babe in arms astride one of two weary nags had been placed headed south toward the Santa Fe Trail not far ahead. Thus they hadn’t seen the spires that had since sprouted downtown, and these glass and metal structures looked menacing to their 19th century eyes, so they turned in the opposite direction and continued their southward march, this time actually moving. Soon they found themselves on Broadway, passing between the tall buildings, and weaving through the automobile traffic that honked and braked and swerved around them. The drivers, unaware of similar events unfolding several blocks east on Main, found the living statues a diverting oddity at first, but soon tired of the congestion.

The sculptures continued south on Broadway, passing other bronze work that was curiously unmoving, but when they came to the vigilant stone lions perched before the Kansas City Life building they watched the pair yawn mightily, lift their hindquarters to stretch briefly, then rest their heads on their massive stone paws and fall asleep.

Several blocks farther down Broadway, they came upon three bronze sculptures in Pioneer Park at the heart of Westport. Westport had been a bustling town that saw much of the Westward Expansion pass through. Indeed, a stretch of the Santa Fe Trail is now known as Westport Road, though not many people know this. The three bronzes depicted Alexander Majors, John McCoy, and Jim Bridger, who were early boosters and town builders, though even fewer people knew this. Kansas City eventually outstripped and absorbed Westport, and the area is now best known for revelry, which everyone knows. Yet something of the old spirit must have resided in the three bronzes, for they were engaged in a lively discussion as the pioneer statues approached afoot, having lost their horses to a large pot of tasty flowers they had passed. The bronze horses munched away merrily on the brightly colored flowers, and no one thought it prudent to stop them.

“I’m not a man for sitting,” said Bridger, who had been sitting in Pioneer Park for 20 years. “I must be about to be alive!” He slapped his oversized hat across his knee with a crack.

“Nor I,” said McCoy. “Yet where would we take ourselves? This is not our world.”

“As you two have sat on your hinders these many years,” said Majors, “I have held my gaze to the west where our great nation has grown. As I recall, Boone’s Store is but a block west of here, and I believe if we go there we may find a way to understand this modern age.”

A man of decision always attracts followers, and when his two companions rose to join him, the two male statues from the Pioneer Mother fell in step behind them. Thus they had finally set foot on the Santa Fe Trail, though they weren’t to go far.

The mother, still carrying her baby, would have none of this, and instead had a different thought. She gazed further down Broadway, spied what she sought, and leaving the menfolk heading west, turned her steps south.

La Pudeura had meanwhile continued her stalk into the Plaza and soon was seen pulling open the doors at Talbots. She stepped inside and took a moment to survey the pretty things, hitching up the orange fabric around her that had slipped a bit, before a smartly dressed floor attendant hurried over. The tall pale woman in black leather gave the short bronze woman in orange hazard fencing a quick once over and said, “Oh hon, we’re not going to have your size. You’d better find a Lane Bryant.” Many of Kansas City’s finest matrons has passed before La Pudeura during her naked museum life, and more than once she’d heard them speak of Talbots, but just as many stouter matrons had also whispered of Lane Bryant, so she took the advice and headed back outside.

The Plaza is dotted with many sculptures, and before disappearing La Pudeura seemed to have passed life into one. Resting on a stone near a busy intersection was the marble statue of a sleeping girl, and perhaps the constant passing of cars and shoppers had made her sleep fitful, for she now began tossing and turning, trying to regain the slumber she was crafted to depict. The shoppers found her adorable as she fussed and whimpered, but some of the poses the naked child struck when deep sleep overtook her were less demure than this Midwestern city would tolerate. Soon a blanket was produced and draped over her lack of bashfulness. Yet in her struggles, the blanket was often tossed to the ground, and it became the mission of a local church to keep the statue’s nakedness covered, just as they used to do in Washington.

Majors, Bridger, McCoy, and the two pioneer fellows had indeed found Boone’s Store, which they were delighted to discover had since evolved into Kelly’s Bar. They kept a boisterous table, the old wooden floor creaked beneath them, and there were plenty of well-wishers willing to keep the happy group in drink, having finally found art they could understand.

The Pioneer Mother had spied the pools in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, promptly clunked down Broadway, disrobed, and indulged in a long bath. She had endured a long and dusty trail, and that horse she road stank. She lolled in the water, splashing about with her laughing infant, giving a hard, bronze look to any passersby who dared to linger and stare. Her garments lay about the pool in misshapen heaps of bronze, and though they would be a hazard to pedestrians, none dared approach.

There were other consequences to the lively art, not altogether pleasant. The flowers that the horses were eating had been transformed to a new state, and these were being left about, heavy to lift and move, though no one really wanted to touch them. Was this art, after all, or was this crap?

And at first no one gave any thought to the missing bronze statue of the frolicking child at the base of the American Century towers. There were a half dozen there, and it was assumed that the statue had tired of playing and simply wandered off. Days passed, and another statue had to go missing before anyone would consider that the spider had been snatching them in the night to eat. Well, Kansas City had altogether too many statues of frolicking children anyway it was thought.

All of this time, the Crying Giant had continued his lament. The Museum began getting angry calls from neighbors who complained that they didn’t want art that “kept them awake.” Attempts to reason with the Giant proved fruitless, in part because it had no ears.

In the days that passed, the Star disdained the phenomenon. The Arts section didn’t want to devote its few pages to what it considered a news story, while the news sections couldn’t figure out how a story that everyone already knew would sell any more subscriptions or increase advertising. The television stations didn’t devote any air time because, well, they never cover the arts. And although KCUR gave the living art and history some coverage, hardly anyone listens to that station.

The novelty of it all had passed quickly. The lively statues had been things to drag out-of-town guests to see, much as one might show off a two-headed calf or a potato chip in the shape of a president. But no longer. No one knew what to make of the art, especially now that it was so present and alive. Through the ensuing days, the whole thing drifted from freak show to annoyance. Finally it just became something to endure and avoid when possible, like politicians and evangelists.

And then La Pudeura was spotted again, clanking up Main Street, no longer hiding her shame. Rather, she was shrouded in a voluminous dress of sensible black velvet that swept the ground as she took each thundering step.

About this time, the Pioneer Mother stopped splashing with her child. She rose from the pool, dressed them both, then trudged over to Kelly’s where she fetched her menfolk and glared at the other three. They sheepishly followed her and parted at Broadway where the three boosters took more or less their same positions in Pioneer Park, looking a bit more haggard than before. The Pioneer Mother lead the two other bronze men further north on Broadway, where they found their horses fattened and complacent and rode them back to Penn Valley Park. Soon they were back to their original stances, though they chose to face north this time to gaze on progress for a while.

La Pudeura supervised the return of the Bourgeois spider, which looked a bit less sleek now but seemed willing to return to its eight pedestals. Then she gave a remonstrating look to the Crying Giant, who finally ceased blubbering, before struggling onto her plinth. She smoothed her dress, dropped her hands to her sides, and stared ahead with bulbous eyes.

Thus normalcy was restored. And if some of the statues held slightly different poses in the end, not a single person noticed.

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