There’s adventure in Alexis Webb Bechtold’s art. And purpose. “I want people to get off the beaten path. I want my art to expose people to other art, to public art.”
With that as her mission, she created the Curiosity Passport, an interactive scavenger hunt to find letterboxes at one of 26 pre-determined landmarks and public art installations throughout Kansas City. Those icons are memorialized in the self-described “eco-artist’s” mini-mosaics, each created from upcycling used plastic gift cards applied to birch tree slices.
The art is the attraction; the hunt the satisfaction; and the documentation the culmination.
A letterbox is a hidden box with a logbook and stamp, generally hand carved. Participants find clues online, in Webb Bechtold’s case at www.curiositypassport.com, and use the clues to find the letterboxes. When the clues are solved and one finds a letterbox, the stamp -- which Webb Bechtold makes out of her living studio at designWerx, 1313 Atlantic St., North Kansas City -- is used to mark one’s passport. The passports can also be purchased at her web site, but the artist concedes that one does not need the passport to experience the art.
Letterbox aficionados use their own signature stamp, or trail name, to mark the logbook and add their hometown. “The letterbox at the Rosedale Memorial Arch has signatures from Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Illinois; the Goddess of Broken Birds has seen marks from as far away as Kentucky, New York, Illinois and Indiana,” she says.
Webb Bechtold’s artistic journey is influenced by her love of photography. Her eye for composition, light, perspective and depth of field influences her vision of what many take for granted. “It amazes me how we drive by certain sculptures and fountains and never stop to appreciate them,” she says. Inspired by “boredom” she looked for unique ways to celebrate her 33rd birthday, which led to an unintended, figurative dive into Kansas City’s fountains.
“I wanted to participate in random acts of kindness and came across the City of Fountains Foundation’s website that candidly looked like it could benefit from some of my photography.”
She donated photographs of 33 fountains to the site, and her love for the city’s fountains grew; she now gives tours of the fountains, does public presentations and even has a YouTube channel dedicated to the fountains.
From the fountains’ project sprung the Curiosity Passport.
Letterboxing itself dates back to the 1850s, but Webb Becthold’s project uses 21st century technology -- the internet -- to provide the clues. She is careful, however, not to undermine part of the project’s original spirit: “I want the art to be inclusive, to ensure that English, for example, not be a prerequisite to grasp the clues or appreciate the art.”
And her goals don’t stop there. “We want to find (hiding) places that also have a cool story, have meaning to them.” There’s a significance that goes beyond the hunt.
The mini-mosaics have found homes in galleries over the course of the project’s past 12 months, and gallery goers themselves are targets of Webb Bechtold’s mission. “I want them to appreciate public art; to get out in it.”
“Take the U.N. Peace Park. Nobody talks about it. Few people know about it. Or the Northland Fountain. Tens of thousands of people drive by it daily and ignore it, generally until it freezes over -- which by the way it was designed to do.”
Those who want to get a glimpse for what they’re searching can experience a letterbox on display at the Buttonwood Art Space at 3013 Main St., Kansas City.
“When people come through they ask questions. We put in a QR code so they can go right to Alexis’ website for more information,” says Gallery Directory Macy Layne. “Like many of them, we love to explore our community, too”
There is also a letterbox shelved at Pawn and Pint the board game pub. “It’s a natural for us,” says co-founder Edward Schmalz. “It’s a cliché, but it invites curiosity: ‘What’s that?’ people ask. It is after all kind of a game.”
And Webb Bechtold says that’s the point. “This is supposed to be fun.”
Meantime, she is hoping the Curiosity Passport will spark interest and investment from other communities and perhaps in other genre. “You could make Native Species’ letterboxes, or historical landmarks, or a dedicated project unique to Blue Springs or Yellow Stone or the Grand Bahamas,” she gushes.
While the letterboxes occasionally disappear, the artist has committed to replacing them, once. Similarly she understood at the outset that the elements would have a detrimental effect on the boxes themselves, generally crafted from embellished mint tins. A collaboration in the works could burnish change, casting embedded metal medallions in place of today’s rubber stamp and letterbox itself.
“The goal stays the same -- get people out into public spaces,” she says.