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Dedham prepares to say goodbye to its fiberglass rabbits

“Townie,’’ by Marietta Apollonio, has been on view in front of Whole Foods Market in the Legacy Plaza shopping center in Dedham.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

“Townie,’’ by Marietta Apollonio, has been on view in front of Whole Foods Market in the Legacy Plaza shopping center in Dedham.

One was covered with bright-colored swirls, another resembled a tiger. Still others were covered in clouds, lady­bugs, and patches. They were the playthings of enchanted children. A few became Internet stars. One angered several of the town’s veterans.

Dedham’s 15 4-foot-tall fiberglass rabbits have sat watch over parks and businesses around town for several months, but they’ll soon scatter to the homes of people around the country who are bidding for them online.

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The phenomenon began on a cold January day, when the Dedham Public Art Project, an arm of the civic-minded nonprofit Dedham Shines, brought the first bunny to the Dedham Community Theatre.  

Though the project was managed by the copresidents of Dedham Shines, Monika Wilkinson and Jen Barsamian, it was the brainchild of ­Selectman Paul Reynolds, who secured $2,500 in state money to purchase that first sculpture.

“I felt that this public art project would make our arts commitment more visible and put us on the arts map,” Reynolds said.

But why rabbits?

“The Dedham Rabbit” became known around 1894, when the Chelsea Pottery Co. moved to town and became Dedham Pottery. The company’s output was characterized by a signature crackle glaze and cobalt blue designs that incorporated crouching rabbits. Organizers wanted the project to have the pottery company and Dedham’s arts heritage represented in the works displayed around town.

“A Tail of Dedham Pottery,” by Elaine Matt Schaffner, is just off Route 95 in front of the Welcome to Dedham sign.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

“A Tail of Dedham Pottery,” by Elaine Matt Schaffner, is just off Route 95 in front of the Welcome to Dedham sign.

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Over the course of several months, Dedham Shines found sponsors for 14 additional solid white rabbits, and selected local artists to finish the sculptures with whatever medium they chose. Several used paint and two created a mosaic named “­Leroy” or “Peace.”

The project didn’t go off without a hitch. Wilkinson and Barsamian said that at times, it was difficult to explain the purpose of the project to potential sponsors or describe what it would ultimately look like.

However, support came eventually, especially after the rabbits starting appearing in neighborhoods and at local businesses.

“People didn’t feel the investment or the ownership of the rabbits until they saw them out,” Wilkinson said.

By late summer, all 15 rabbits, which cost $2,500 each, had been sponsored and placed. Photos and stories of people visiting them were sent to project organizers almost daily. It seemed, Wilkinson said, that their efforts were paying off.

An online auction of the rabbits has been ongoing since Oct. 20 at www.biddingforgood.com/dedhamshines, with bids starting at $1,000. In addition, a raffle for “Bengal Bunny,” a rabbit adorned with ­tiger stripes, has already sold more than 100 tickets.  

“The community really felt the excitement, and that was the goal,” Wilkinson said. “We wanted to generate enthusiasm, and it’s exciting to see that we were able to accomplish that.”

What follows are some of the memories the bunnies leave behind.

Conversation is sparked

Dozens of residents and visitors to Dedham have filled the project’s Face­book page with comments since its inception.

One photo shared shows a person dressed up in a rabbit costume setting up a tripod to take a picture with Spiral Bunny. Comments include messages from families interested in purchasing the rabbits or sharing stories about what their children thought about the project.

Wilkinson even received an e-mail from an artist in France who is working on a rabbit installation and was hoping to gain insight on Dedham’s experience.

“People feel that they want a piece of the project,” she said.

Target of mischief

In July, the first report of vandalism came from a neighbor who noticed one of Bengal Bunny’s ears was missing. It was the second call the project received about the rabbit, which had been placed at Paul Park and was the subject of an attempted kidnapping the week before.

“It’s definitely dark in that corner, and the lighting was a concern for that area,” Barsamian said at the time. “But one would think that being by a playground is pretty safe, and it is a pretty residential area.”

A replacement ear was purchased for about $100, installed, and repainted by the artist earlier this month, but not before the spoiler on “Pete Hamilton Race Car Rabbit” was hit as well.

Inspiring others

Along with the e-mails and photos, project organizers said the rabbits inspired side projects that celebrated the arts and the town’s rabbit history.

Members of the Noble and Greenough School’s cross-country team recently held a “Rabbit Run,” in which they wore rabbit ears and ran to each of the statue locations around town.

It even captured the attention of a 5-year-old “photojournalist” who has documented every rabbit through photos posted to her mother’s blog, Caterpickles.

“The things that have been sparked because of this are very exciting,” Wilkinson said.

Veterans take issue

One rabbit was at the center of a controversy that seemed to polarize two community groups in Dedham. Issues arose after a group of Dedham veterans noticed the mosaic rabbit, created by a veteran and donated in honor of a veteran, at the Oakdale Common.

At the time, Francis O’Brien, a Norfolk County commissioner, veteran, and liaison for the Veterans Council, asked Dedham’s Parks and Recreation Department to have the bunny removed permanently from the site. He said the statue compromised the intent of the space, which also holds a dedication to those who served in the armed forces.

But after a number of meetings, the two groups and the town agreed that the rabbit would stay through Flag Day and Sept. 11, but would be the first rabbit removed before the auction and farewell celebration.

A townwide goodbye

On Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., all 15 rabbits will be displayed at First Church and Parish in Dedham on High Street. The event is open to the public; a $5 donation per individual or $10 per family is requested.

Several of the artists will demonstrate their techniques, activities are scheduled for children, and a screen will show the online auction taking place. Organizers will also announce the winner of the Bengal Bunny raffle.

Said Barsamian, “It’s a way for the community to say goodbye to the rabbits and let people be a part of the ending.”

Natalie Feulner can be reached at natalie.feulner@globe.com.

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