Thursday, July 21, 2016

The heartbreaking story of the Cowalligator

In the summer of 2001, there was a new fad making its way across the Atlantic. No, not Harry Potter or Emo, this craze was being driven from east to west, from cow town to cow town, bringing artists and pun makers together to populate our cities with a hot new brand of public art. What began in Zurich, Switzerland in 1998, arrived in Chicago and then New York, and finally our cow town was next – The CowParade was coming to Kansas City!

Artists of all stripes were roped in. I struggled to getaway, but it was no use. I was nearly broke. Selected artists would each get $1,000. My resistance weakened. Nevertheless, I felt if I was going to participate, I needed a way to approach decorating a fiberglass cow where I wasn’t completely being taken in like a lemming. So, when I applied, I submitted a design that gently satirized the whole enterprise. I was pretty sure it would be rejected.

My idea was a version of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, except in this case the wolf would be an alligator and the sheep’s clothing would be a cheaply made cow disguise. At the time I was just developing a habit of layering maybe one too many metaphors on top of each other, so with the cow I felt one level of symbolism was not enough. I added the Jonah and the whale story. Jonah was played by an artist (me) who had been lured in by the cowporate CowParade only to be consumed whole (by the alligator in cow disguise) and sentenced to live within the belly of the beast. I called it the Cowalligator.

I even came up with a definition for what I imagined could be a new word.
Cowalligator - noun: A person (animal or entity) who does a poor job of masking their bad intentions.

To my surprise, the design was accepted (along with a number of other Lawrence artists), which meant I actually had to paint the heifer. In a vast warehouse in the West Bottoms of KC, my friend Greg and I picked up the great white bubble wrapped whale-cow, and I imagined that all over the KC metro heads were turning to see stiff white utters and legs emerging from the backs of pick-up trucks and strapped to the tops of station wagons. 

Painting the bovine became a group effort. Lots of passersby stopped by to help, and I even began to enjoy it.  A photo at the time shows the wide range of projects I was working on including a mosaic for a restaurant in Iowa and stencil installation for a show at the Bourgeois Pig. I can't quite recall what the "Frogs for Dave" sign was about.

The freshly painted cows were installed throughout the KC metro in herds. The Cowalligator was part of small herd in Shawnee-Mission Park. Kansas Citians were mad about the CowParade, and it turned out, a few got really mad at the cow parade. Some artists protested that it wasn’t art. The Municipal Arts Commission of Kansas City even voted to kill the entire exhibition, but the city went forward with it.

It was fun to go cow exploring (maybe a little like the current Pokémon Go mania). I went with friends to the park, and to see other cows on the Plaza and downtown. One hot summer day, I took an old friend to check out the Cowalligator only to discover was gone. Lost. Vanished. The concrete base and small plaque were all that was left. We looked around. The rest of the herd was there. The Cowalligator was the only one missing.

Was it theft? A few had been stolen in other cities. Had it been vandalized? This was more common, and damaged cows were removed for repairs. I called the CowParade home office to report a runaway. “Mr. Loewenstein, we thought you knew. Your cow is fine. It’s at Sandstone tonight….for the Tom Petty concert.” They went on, “We’re getting the band to sign your cow. Other cows are being signed by pop stars, pro-athletes and celebrities, you know, to help increase their value for the upcoming auction. She’ll be returned to the park next week.”

I mean, I guess if the Cowalligator was going to be abducted for a celebrity, it couldn’t have been better one. But I wondered if there was a reason Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were signing mine and not someone else’s. Did they choose it? Was there something about the wolf in sheep’s clothing theme? Maybe it was the alligator, since Petty is from Florida. Those mysteries remain unsolved, but the most important question was answered – did they really autograph it?

A couple of weeks before the big auction, I went back to the park to investigate. As promised, there she was up on the hill, and as I got closer I could tell there were...signatures! Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell on the forehead, the other bandmates on the utters. 

That was the last I ever saw of her. Later that October, the Cowalligator was auctioned off, although to who I never discovered.