Quirks of art: a colorful escape in Kansas City

11/04/2012 12:00 AM

11/02/2012 11:57 AM

The fully furnished American Georgian exudes 18th century elegance, from the grand stairway to ornate moldings to exquisite white thornwood mirror frames. And everything works: The locks lock, the fully dovetailed drawers slide, the window shutters open and close.

The immaculately constructed mansion is just steps from sculptures and paintings by the likes of Degas and Pissarro, and what is possibly the world’s largest marble collection.

I’m not house-hunting; I’m dollhouse-marveling. Miniature master William Robertson’s Twin Manors features more than 75,000 pieces. Authenticity’s absolute: the roof’s made with 18th century wood, the bricks from 18th century brick dust. Those nearby sculptures and paintings? Meticulous miniature interpretations of actual masterpieces. They’re among astonishing creations at the Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City.

Turns out that this bastion of barbecue is also a hotbed of unconventional art.

My sampling starts with the world’s largest collection of fine-scale miniatures: breathtaking furnishings, pottery, appliances, machines, cameras and other items faithfully reproduced on one inch to the foot scale, 1/12th their actual size.

Robertson’s jaw-dropping precision also inspirits Architect’s Classroom, a room setting filled with drafting tools, desks, models, even micro-replicas of photographs of landmark architecture. The Kansas City miniaturist got his start as a boy in Washington, D.C. carving replacement puzzle pieces and examining models at the Smithsonian. He crafts his own miniscule tools, including jeweler’s saws, router bits and a micro hand-plane.

Authentic miniatures must function like their full-size counterparts — except musical instruments. They just don’t make beautiful music in miniature.

Clinking and swooshing of glass orbs in floor-to-ceiling mazes draw me into the marble zone. Cathy and Larry Svacina, a local couple, met at a marble auction, combined their swirls, sulfides, Benningtons, Chinas and onionskins upon marrying, then donated one million marbles (give or take a few) to the museum.

“We’re trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records for World’s Largest Marble Tournament in 2013,” says museum educator Amanda Clark. “We broke it in 2008 and are anxious to earn back the title.”

Rooms of antique playthings kindle delight unmatched by today’s electronic diversions. Artifacts include 1890s cast-iron mechanical banks, intricately carved animals of countless species, a covered wagon made from matchsticks by a jailed man, tea sets and model trains circling tracks. Imagination is sparked by magic viewers, treasure houses, ornate stick-figure stages and peep shows, a 15th-century creation employing optical illusion.

Georgiana, a doll from 1750s England, “has her original clothing and has glass eyes and a wig of real human hair,” notes Clark. A collection of delicate French dolls made of bisque were not for playing, but, Clark explains, “to practice adult skills like sewing and keeping up with fashion trends.”

Biking northward, I stop to wander through a free oasis of fantasy flora at Kauffman Memorial Garden, then on to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I expected stunning works but found surprises as well — including free admission and a 22-acre sculpture park where headless wanderers, molten-metal trees and mammoth badminton shuttlecocks pop up like magical visions.

Inside, shiny new “shuttlecarts” designed by Kansas City’s own Peregrine Honig transport visitors between far-flung galleries. The impossibly silent, eco-friendly Birdcage and Sweet Charity project a circus-meets-European royalty vibe.

In the center of town, sun bounces off huge silver shells housing Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a steel-and-glass architectural marvel opened last year.

This show-stopper contrasts with the Crossroads arts district’s handsome old brick warehouses now invigorated with lofts, cafes and galleries . At Sherry Leedy Contemporary, a seductive cobalt-blue ceramic gown glows between amusing creatures by local sculptors.

Outside, another hometown artist, Scribe, has turned walls into graphic novels exploding with otherworldly animals, proving KC’s graffiti-friendly reputation. The critters range from sweet to sinister; the monster showdown scenes have me alternating between “wow!” and “whoa!”

Navigate on foot or bike and you’ll pass some of the nearly 200 fountains that earned KC the moniker “Rome of the Midwest.” The city’s humane society built the first ones in the early 1900s for horses. Now the fountains serve as public art, with subjects from such unlikely Midwest inhabitants as mermaids and penguins to a red 2,155-pound granite sphere that spins on a slip of water. A touch changes its motion.

On the Missouri River’s south bank, I bike through Riverfront Park, then west on Riverfront Heritage Trail. A freight-train roars by just before I cross the Kansas River on an old bridge turned hike-bike crossing. The pathway’s dressed up with gates in the shape of giant iron penny-farthing velocipedes and poles topped by plate glass-steel-neon sculptures by STRETCH. This city clearly supports its local artists.

Some artworks tell heritage stories. Beneath the iconic Liberty Memorial tower, entry into the National World War I Museum takes you across a glass bridge above a field of 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 fallen WWI soldiers.

In the industrial West Bottoms area, a group of welded-scrap sculptures by another resident, Ed Hogan, honor the scrapped-together families formed by slaves fleeing to the free state of Kansas. A few blocks away, a statue depicts Lewis and Clark, their Native American guide, African-American servant and furry dog pushing westward on the Santa Fe Trail.

A huge fiberglass Hereford bull standing atop a sky-high pedestal reveals a side of Kansas City’s heritage as well as character: Its enchanting quirks of art come in all styles and sizes.

Robin Soslow can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com

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