By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on July 26, 2020
The coral and white school bus at the end of the end of the parking lot at the Rundown Cafe in Kitty Hawk is hard to miss.
Outside tables are neatly stacked with prints, jewelry and pottery. Next to the tables — more prints and some original art. The coral and white colors mark the bus as something different. Yet as different as the exterior may be, it is inside the bus where the most startling change has occurred.
Gone are all the seats, replaced by an art gallery featuring the creative works of numerous Outer Banks artists. Mermaids swim along one wall; necklaces and earrings dangle from displays. It is a small space, yet filled with color and art, it feels larger.
If necessity is the mother of invention then it is the mother of innovation as well, and for Ami Hill, owner and curator of Muse Originals OBX, the school bus represents innovation and survival. Two years ago, she opened Muse Originals OBX next door to Art’s Place in Kitty Hawk. Representing more than 70 local artists, and with a glassblower in the store, Hill had good years in 2018 and 2019, and it seemed as though 2020 was headed in the same direction.
Then the Outer Banks closed the bridges.
“When they shut down the beach March 16, I started to really worry about the future — what sales are going to look like in a shop like mine,” Hill said. Her glassblower had already said he wouldn’t be back, and she started thinking about her options. Quitting was not one of them.
“I didn’t want to quit,” Hill said. “I put a lot of work into my business and the seventy-five artists that would kind of count on me.” Her landlord, who was hoping to sell the building, had already agreed to let her out of her lease. Her first thought was a smaller space, but that didn’t seem like much of a solution.
“I realized that something smaller is still costing me a lot of money. It was still going to be a one-year lease which I was afraid to sign. And I still wouldn’t own anything,” she said.
She thought about a tent and going to fairs and markets. And then she came up with a mobile idea. Her solution was to buy an old school bus and create a roving art gallery. It was a smaller space, she would own it and if the managers of fairs and markets wouldn’t allow her at their locations, she would create her own event.
“If they won’t let me join their party, I’ll just start my own,” is how she described it. A friend put her in contact with a mechanic who worked for Norfolk public schools, who told her ten buses had just been sent to Ruckersville, Virginia. With some help from the mechanic, the best bus was found, purchased and brought back to the Outer Banks to become a roving art gallery.
As she, her husband and the neighbor worked to ready the bus, they didn’t drive it at all. When they finally took it out on the road, they discovered they had done something they weren’t supposed to do if kids were in the bus.
“When we went to move it, the child alarm was going off, and we could not get the alarm to stop. So I drove it for a week with the alarm buzzing in the cab before I finally called the mechanic,” she recalled. It was a simple fix—just pull the fuse.
Hill, who has a background in marketing, started emailing Outer Banks locations that appeared to have space for her bus.
“I reached out to local restaurants to pitch my idea and within an hour I had a resounding yes from the new owners of Rundown Cafe,” she said.
On June 19, a coral and white bus, still with blue painter’s tape on the windows, parked at the Rundown Cafe parking lot. Right now, the Muse Originals OBX bus is at the Rundown three days a week and Hill is expanding her venues.
“The Currituck Club came down and saw me at the Rundown. They asked me to start showing up there on Saturdays,” she said. “I just met with Mama Kwan’s and we’re gonna try this coming Wednesday. I met with the Brewing Station last week and they asked me to come set up at their spot on Mondays for their Brew and Arts. So that’s exciting.”