Published May 25th, 2020 at 11:30 AM
To shoppers who frequented The Landing Shopping Center on Troost Avenue in the 1960s, the focal point was a medley of 30 animal sculptures created by local artist Jac T. Bowen.
For Helaine and Arthur Steuer, former Kansas Citians now in Michigan, Bowen’s animals inspired a personal project, one he created just for their son almost 60 years ago. Helaine discovered our story, “The Curious Case of Animals at The Landing,” and had a personal story to tell.
It was 1963. Steuer recalls going to The Landing and being mesmerized by Bowen’s shiny, cement animals. She was a young mother of a toddler and pregnant with her second child, drumming up gift ideas for her son’s second birthday when she thought, instead of buying a swing set in her backyard – like all the other neighbors – why not find a life-sized animal sculpture her toddler could climb?
“We wanted something different for him and his friends,” Helaine wrote in an email.
So, without hesitation she called the mall to track down the artist. A few phone calls later, she learned the animal sculptures at The Landing were created by a renowned Kansas City artist, Jac T. Bowen.
Steuer was unaware of Bowen’s acclaim at the time. During her initial conversation with the artist, she learned that a sculpture like the ones at The Landing would cost around $1,000 — or about $8,400 in current dollars.
“(He) asked me what I wanted to spend, (and) I didn’t want to tell him because I was terribly embarrassed, having no idea that the cost would be anywhere near (that),” she wrote. “I was young and naive in 1963!”
Undeterred, Bowen began to tell her of an alternative. He’d been commissioned to create another series of animals for children to climb and hang on, much like the figures at the mall. But he’d seen children playing on the incomplete wire skeletons of what would become his signature colorful cement animals, and that inspired what he’d create for the Steuers.
In lieu of the cement sculpture, he agreed to make a cost-effective piece with an exposed, wire-framed sculpture, like a jungle gym.
“He came to my home, he sat with me in the living room and sketched animals,” Helaine said in a phone call.
Bowen drew a few different animals for the young family, such as a giraffe with its neck in the ground that served as a slide. Ultimately they opted for an elephant with its trunk in the air.
On July 4, 1963, Bowen rolled up in a van to deliver the new toy, which the Steuers dubbed Dumbo.
“Another thing that was kind of fun was my parents each drew which colors we’d want it to be and then we chose one. Mine won,” Helaine recalled.
A very pregnant Helaine watched from the window as her parents and husband painted. Dumbo has red “feet” – really they’re the anchors to hold him in place – and a forest green frame, with pops of yellow on his ears and trunk.
“He goes 18 inches into the ground with 100 pounds of concrete on each foot. Jac Bowen told us to do that,” she explained.
Bowen was mindful of keeping it secure for the children.
Since the 1960s, Helaine and her family moved several times – first to Washington, D.C. and later to Michigan where they now reside – but not without their beloved Dumbo. At every home they’ve lived, he’s lived there too.
“Actually I am in my kitchen looking at it as we speak,” Steuer said with a chuckle.
Whenever the time came to move again, her husband Arthur had to use a car jack to pull the sculpture out of the ground. It was that sturdy.
Arthur has also kept it looking new over the past 60 years, from cleaning the rust off to painting the feet cherry red again. Over the years, as the paint chips or grows faded, he paints him back to bright green glory.
“It isn’t without care but is worth it. He’s brought a lot of joy to a lot of people,” Helaine said.
“Dumbo has been a member of our family for 57 years,” Helaine said, “The 2-year-old in 1963 had his 59th birthday (in April), and we expect that Dumbo will be moved to his back yard when he has grandchildren.”
There you have it, a personal Bowen’s creation inspired by a toddler climbing on an animal sculpture outside a once-popular Kansas City mall.