Elwood P. Dowd has got nothing on the residents of the Conejo Valley.
The character played by Jimmy Stewart in the beloved 1950 comedy “Harvey” imagines just one giant rabbit, but locals will soon be seeing “the real thing” 20 times over—human-sized bunnies placed in public spaces in the area. It’s all due to the efforts of the Conejo Cottontails committee.
The public art project has local artists decorating 5½-foot-tall fi- berglass statues of conejos, which will be installed where Conejo Valley residents walk, shop and play. “Conejo” is Spanish for rabbit, and the idea echoes Los Angeles’ Community of Angels statues and Chicago’s cow parade figures.
“We really plan on decorating our city,” said Nan Young, executive director of the Newbury Park-based nonprofit Art Trek and one of the leading members of the committee that makes up Conejo Cottontails.
Art Trek is co-sponsoring the project with the Arts Council of the Conejo Valley.
Bringing bunnies to Conejo
Conejo Cottontails is an idea that dates back well over a decade, but it took Young and current Arts Council President Pat Johnson to finally bring it to life.
Last spring the committee commissioned Westlake Village artist Cate Hartenstein, a rabbit enthusiast, to sculpt a bunny in miniature. A company then made 5½-foot-tall fiberglass reproductions of the sculpture—20 in all.
Next a subcommittee selected artists to decorate one rabbit each. Most will paint them, but at least one will cover a rabbit in mosaic.
“We wanted high-quality artists and we got applications from all over,” said Johnson, a resident of Thousand Oaks. “We tried to stay local, but we did spread out to the San Fernando Valley and Studio Channel Islands.”
To pay the artists to complete their work and to cover the cost of the fiberglass rabbits, the committee is seeking individuals, businesses and organizations to sponsor the creations at $5,000 each. A portion of the money will go toward arts education in the community.
The committee has found sponsors for six of the 20 statues, which will stand about 6 feet tall when mounted to a base. On the base will be a plaque with the names of the artist and the sponsor.
Sponsors can suggest locations for their rabbits. Thus far, statues are slated to appear outside the Under One Roof building on Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks, Casa Pacifica in Camarillo, Art Trek in Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks City Hall and one at a CVUSD site.
“We’re also hoping to put them up at places like Gardens of the World, the (Westlake) Promenade, (The Oaks) mall, Janss Marketplace, parks,” Young said. “Really, we’d like them any place people walk and can see them up close, have their pictures taken with them.”
Only one of the rabbits has been completed so far and none have yet been placed. The committee hopes to have the first in place at the Civic Arts Plaza within about six weeks, Young said.
The rabbits will remain in their public places for at least a year, after which they could be relocated. The sculptures should stay in good condition for up to 20 years, especially if they’re resealed from time to time, Johnson said.
Conejo Cottontails is whimsical and fun, but public art offers more than simple eye candy, Johnson said. It helps unify communities.
Unlike art in galleries, public art is accessible to everyone.
“There’s no elitism to it; all you have to do is go out and see it,” Young said. “The art belongs to all of us once it becomes public art, and we’re unified by our visual experience.”
The idea has piqued the interest of new T.O. Mayor Joel Price, who said he intends to call attention to the project during his term.
“It might be a strange thing to notice, but when I’ve seen these in other cities, it’s struck me there’s no graffiti on them,” Price said. “I think people take some pride in the statues and have left them alone.”
Another benefit of the project is the associated education program the committee will make available to area schools.
“More than half the people I encounter who don’t speak Spanish don’t know what conejo means even though we live in the Conejo Valley,” Young said.
“We’ve put an educational assembly together with a presentation including history, myths, magic and lore of rabbits in the Conejo Valley.”
Educational visits to local schools will include drawing and rabbit-sculpting projects where students will get to shape their own bunnies from air-dried clay.
To learn more about the Conejo Cottontial project, go to www.conejopublicart.org.