DEDHAM - The unwrapping of the first of 20 4-foot-tall, pure white rabbit sculptures stopped pedestrians in their tracks last week in front of the Dedham Community Theatre.
“Can we touch it?’’ a young boy asked.
“Is that a giant popcorn machine?’’ another inquired.
It was, in fact, the unveiling of Dedham’s newest public art project and upcoming fund-raiser for the recently proposed Mother Brook Community and Arts Center in East Dedham.
The project was hatched two years ago by a group of community artists and art enthusiasts interested in starting a year-long celebration of Dedham’s art heritage through the display of public art.
“The Dedham Rabbit’’ became known around 1894, when the Chelsea Pottery Co. moved to Dedham and became Dedham Pottery. Work created by the company was characterized by a signature crackle glaze, cobalt blue designs, and a crouching rabbit.
“This project will help Dedham claim the crouching rabbit as an icon or brand,’’ said Paul Reynolds, a local selectman and organizer of the project. “Salem has its witches, Boston has its teams; Dedham needs to claim the rabbit because it represents our heritage in the arts.’’
He added that the arrival of the first bunny “officially launched the project.’’
Each fiberglass figure will be sponsored by a local individual, business, or organization, decorated by an area artist in the medium of his or her choice, and then placed around town. Reynolds said he hopes to have at least six done by May and all 20 by August.
“The hope is that this will really bring people to Dedham,’’ he said. “We’ve been working with the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Representative [Paul] McMurtry to spread the news far and wide that the Dedham bunnies are multiplying.’’
The business and individual sponsorships will provide a stipend for each artist and pay the $2,500 it cost to create and deliver each sculpture. In addition, supporters are looking to raise $20,000 for a bronze rabbit sculpture that will become a permanent fixture in the town as a gift to future Dedham residents.
“We really felt we need to mark our 375th year as a town by giving a permanent gift we can send into the future,’’ Reynolds said.
Organizers also hope the art project will serve as a “key photo opportunity attraction’’ for the town. Possible sites for the permanent rabbit include Dedham Square and the art center, proposed as the “new use’’ for the soon-to-be-vacated Avery Elementary School.
The Dedham Board of Selectmen has not approved the center. However, the Avery Re-use Committee and art project organizers are confident it will this Thursday. If selectmen approve the idea, the proposal will then go before Town Meeting on May 14 for final approval. Meanwhile, supporters have begun working to create a nonprofit organization that will ultimately manage the space.
“The idea is for this to be a self-supported, self-sustained center that will benefit the entire community,’’ Avery Re-use Committee chairman Joe Heisler said earlier this month.
Artists to paint the rabbit sculptures will be selected by the Dedham Square Artists Guild and are free to use any medium that can adhere to a fiberglass form. The rest is left up to “the artist’s imagination,’’ Reynolds said.
The sculptures are made by Cowpainters, a studio in Chicago that has been creating fiberglass forms for public art projects for more than a decade. A few of Cowpainters’ better-known projects around the country include cow sculptures in Kansas City, Kan., and bears in North Carolina.
The first Dedham rabbit will be painted by Marietta Apollonio, a cofounder of the guild. Her work painting the sculpture will be promoted during February to raise attention and funds for the entire project.
Apollonio said she plans to use two or three bright colors for stripes, white with black line work for the forms, and lots of detail. This is her first large-scale public art piece, but she said she is looking forward to the challenge.
“How could I not be excited about this one? It’s a huge bunny,’’ she said. “And actually the bunny is taller than me, which I’m sure will add a humorous aspect to photos.’’
Some organizations are already on board to support the project, and Reynolds said he’s fielding calls daily about artists interested in participating.
Janet Holmes, chairwoman of the Dedham Junior Women’s Club, said her committee agreed to donate $500.
“Something like this is a great project, and I wanted the club to support it because it’s such a good thing for our community,’’ Holmes said.
For now, the first bunny will stay at the theater until Apollonio brings it to her studio in early February. Then there will be an unveiling of the “work in progress’’ and ultimately a celebration of the rabbit’s placement in town.
“We’ll keep the naked bunny under the marquee or in the lobby for a while so we get a lot of attention to the project,’’ Reynolds said. “As the rest are finished, they’ll be spread throughout town on a rolling schedule during spring and summer.’’
The sculptures are large enough for a grown man to sit on, and while that isn’t the primary purpose, Reynolds and organizers do hope people will take the time to inspect them, touch them, and take pictures.
“We want to capture the attention of people who live here in Dedham, he said. “We are helping them use their imagination and in doing so, attracting attention toward artists who are here producing great work.’’