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Cambria's unique and amusing Scarecrow Festival combines community support and individual artistry 

So you’re driving up Highway 1. Perhaps you’re on your way to Hearst Castle for a weekend trip with the family. Maybe you’ve got plans to jaunt about the lush forests of Big Sur. Perhaps you just need to get out of the house because your neighbor has decided that yes, now is the perfect time to practice amateur heavy metal in the garage. Either way, you’ve just passed the rock in Morro Bay, and to your left, all you can see for miles and miles is the radiant panoramic of the Pacific Ocean. It’s October, and it’s 90 degrees out, so the ocean view couldn’t be more attractive as you head into the hills toward Harmony and beyond.

click to enlarge GRIM GREETERS:  Two skeleton scarecrows tower above the Scarecrow Festival’s kick-off party, held at Cambria Nursery & Florist, where the judges’ selections for best scarecrows are announced. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • GRIM GREETERS: Two skeleton scarecrows tower above the Scarecrow Festival’s kick-off party, held at Cambria Nursery & Florist, where the judges’ selections for best scarecrows are announced.

About 5 miles into those grassy, cow-filled fields, however, the view begins to take a strange and unexpected turn. You’ve entered Cambria—that picturesque village just south of San Simeon. Its antique-shop-lined streets and cozy atmosphere epitomize the phrase “small town charm.” You see people, casual and unhurried, crowded about the local yarn shop, the teahouse, and the lawn bowling field across from the library.

But wait just a minute.

You look a little closer. Those lawn bowlers? They haven’t moved. In fact, those people you saw by the yarn shop and the antique store haven’t budged an inch either. It’s been five minutes now. Maybe you need to get your eyesight checked, because as you scan the street a little farther down, there’s Glenda the Good Witch, Mary Poppins, Frida Kahlo, two chipmunks in Thanksgiving pilgrim attire, and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice a stone’s throw away from Vincent van Gogh. You think to yourself, “Have I stumbled into an episode of The Twilight Zone by mistake?”

Oh no, my friend. This is the Cambria Scarecrow Festival.

click to enlarge RIDE ALONG:  One of the most popular scarecrow installations in town features a working bicycle with two straw-stuffed riders atop. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • RIDE ALONG: One of the most popular scarecrow installations in town features a working bicycle with two straw-stuffed riders atop.

Now in its fifth year, Cambria’s celebration of these weird, wonderful, and completely handcrafted scarecrows has expanded to unimaginable heights. What began as a simple display of 30 papier-mâché creatures by the Cambria Historical Society has flourished and evolved into a full-time enterprise, complete with a board of directors, community workshops, customized merchandise, mobile app technology, and an annual average of around 400 scarecrows that line the streets, shop windows, and beachfronts of Cambria and San Simeon. For a town of only 6,000 or so people that thrives off tourism and a tight-knit community bond, it has become a defining and all-encompassing event.

“It’s dramatic,” Taylor Hilden, founder and director of the Scarecrow Festival, told New Times. “We go down and do man-on-the-street interviews, and ask, ‘Why did you come to Cambria?’ and they say the Scarecrow Festival. To hear people talk about the joy they get from these creations regardless of their age groups makes you so, so happy.”

It’s the same kind of joy that Hilden experienced when she came across the inspiration for the festival in a small town in Nova Scotia. She and her husband had moved to Cambria from Southern California in 1995, and they visited a quaint village off the coast of Canada on a vacation around 2008 and found the same feeling of their adopted home. It shared all the elements that could make something like a scarecrow festival blossom: a main street, scenic views, and a deeply creative energy shared by the local residents.

- SCARECROWS TO GO:  This year’s batch of around 400 scarecrows will be on display throughout October. For a map and more information, visit cambriascarecrows.com or visit their Facebook page to see photos, videos, and the listings of this year’s winning scarecrows. -
  • SCARECROWS TO GO: This year’s batch of around 400 scarecrows will be on display throughout October. For a map and more information, visit cambriascarecrows.com or visit their Facebook page to see photos, videos, and the listings of this year’s winning scarecrows.

“It was a life-changing event,” she said. “I loved it so much, I thought we should take this back to Cambria. You could just tell there was so much going on in that village that brought people together, and the scarecrows displayed that togetherness.”

About mid-summer every year, that togetherness and creative spirit Hilden found in Nova Scotia can be seen in the homes and public halls of Cambria. This is the time when the workshops for the Scarecrow Festival begin. And while it may seem easy to build one of these figures—throw a pumpkin on a stick, Sharpie in some eyes, and wrap it in your best flannel—the process is a lengthy one that, like the festival, has developed over time and integrated the entire community.

According to Michele Sherman, scarecrow maverick and the festival’s social media head, planning for workshops begins in March. First, they have to gather the materials, estimate the number of participants, cover transportation, and only then, when the paper, the glue, and the people are piled into the Veteran’s Hall, can the construction and creativity commence.

click to enlarge SCARE BRO:  'Hedge Creatures,' created by Haak Pearson and Sharon Vaughan and sponsored by Cambria Pines Lodge, features a towering dragon, - with scales fashioned from paper plates. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • SCARE BRO: 'Hedge Creatures,' created by Haak Pearson and Sharon Vaughan and sponsored by Cambria Pines Lodge, features a towering dragon, with scales fashioned from paper plates.

So where exactly does one start when building a scarecrow?

“You start with the head, and you’re halfway home,” noted Suzette Morrow, art teacher at Coast Union High School and frequent scarecrow workshop advisor.

The heads are typically comprised of papier-mâché. You paste on layers and layers of newsprint until they resemble the form you had in mind, and then you wait. You wait two whole weeks until the paint can be applied. But it’s still not over. In order to protect the scarecrows from the elements (they do stand up in town for an entire month, after all), a sealer coats the final product. Then the clothes can go on, the decorations can be added, and after five or six weeks, you have yourself a bona fide statue of individual vision that any crow would be lucky to fear.

“It’s trial and error,” Sherman explained over the phone. “I’ve learned so much from being out in my workshop in the garage. You find out something doesn’t work, and then find something that works. There are unusual remedies, and I quickly make a note of it. … I tell the people at class, you may start out thinking you want to make a princess, and she might turn out to be an elf. We have heard this so many times. The artist who made Alfred Hitchcock, that started out as a squirrel, but she saw the shape of the head and it looked like Alfred Hitchcock. It’s artwork. You go where it evolves, and sometimes it surprises you.”

click to enlarge OGRETOBER:  Curtis, 'The Pumpkin Poaching Ogre,' created by Beverly Whitaker, welcomes visitors into town with a prime spot on Main Street. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • OGRETOBER: Curtis, 'The Pumpkin Poaching Ogre,' created by Beverly Whitaker, welcomes visitors into town with a prime spot on Main Street.

Dennis Frahmann had never really worked with papier-mâché before building a scarecrow at one of these workshops. He first encountered the festival, as many do, visiting the town during its earlier years, and he was immediately hooked by its homespun allure. He moved to Cambria full time in 2012, became engaged in the festival committee, and introduced the idea of the QR code to fellow organizers Sue Robinson and Hilden.

Alongside the Scarecrow Festival’s official website and its Facebook page (which boasts more than 1,500 followers), the QR code allows passersby to individually interact with the stories and creative processes behind the scarecrows. For instance, say you’re outside the Cambria Music Box Shoppe one fine afternoon this October. Right out front, you’ll encounter Igor and Strawinsky (one of many top-notch scarecrow puns; another of which includes Vincent Van ScareGogh, sponsored by Cambria Pines Realty). On Igor and Strawinsky, a hanging card displays the name, the creator, the sponsor, and the QR code—a small, box-shaped design you can scan with your cell phone. Once the code is recognized, a window pops up with the following tale:

click to enlarge BATH TIME:  'Doin’ Our Part,' created by Lissa McConnell, Jenn Greenfield, and Michele Pike for Exotic Nature, won first place for the festival's theme, water conservation. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • BATH TIME: 'Doin’ Our Part,' created by Lissa McConnell, Jenn Greenfield, and Michele Pike for Exotic Nature, won first place for the festival's theme, water conservation.

“Once upon a time, a monkey named Igor was walking through a field playing a hurdy gurdy. He was passing by the tall shadow of a scarecrow when the fellow suddenly began waving his arms. Igor thought he was shooing away crows, but then he noticed the big guy was looking down at him, smiling. Igor soon realized that the scarecrow was conducting the music Igor was playing on his hurdy gurdy! Igor had an idea.

“‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I’m heading over to Cambria for the Scarecrow Festival. How’d you like to team up with me and hang out at the music box shop there?’ The scarecrow replied, ‘Great idea! I’m Strawinsky.’ ‘Let’s go!,’ exclaimed Igor as he jumped up onto Strawinsky’s shoulder.

“And off they went to Cambria, waving at all the other scarecrows along the way. They arrive at their destination and there they stand … in front of the Cambria Music Box Shoppe—Igor’s favorite, unique gift shop featuring unusual merchandise and remarkable service. Igor can play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on his hurdy gurdy, but Strawinsky wishes he could play ‘The Rite of Spring.’”

The story of Igor and Strawinsky embodies some of the elements that have made the Cambria Scarecrow Festival so successful in so little time. It’s the perfect blend of advertisement and irresistible whimsy. It’s no surprise, then, that this combination of increased attention and creative spirit has been a boon to businesses in Cambria during a season that previously fell somewhat flat.

click to enlarge PICARESQUE PICTURE:  The legendary Don Quixote keeps Curtis, the pumpkin poaching ogre, company along the entrance to Cambria's East Village. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PICARESQUE PICTURE: The legendary Don Quixote keeps Curtis, the pumpkin poaching ogre, company along the entrance to Cambria's East Village.

In fact, because the festival draws such heavy crowds, businesses have begun to budget especially for the scarecrow season, according to Hilden.

“I own a lodging, and we’ve certainly seen an increase in occupancy,” said Marjorie Ott, owner of the Olallieberry Inn. “We do have guests who come specifically for the scarecrows once they hear about them. Now, we have some guests who are coming every October because of the Scarecrow Festival.”

For businesses and residents, the event appears to be a win-win. For a relatively reasonable price, local shops can sponsor a scarecrow or build their own, put it out front, and watch as visitors from near and far gather to gaze at these creations, chat about them, and check out what’s in the store. It’s an act of individual and communal expression that’s aided by one of the festival’s more rewarding features: their partnership with the local high school.

click to enlarge FELIX FELICIS:  Felix the Cat, created by Deborah Scarborough, Charlotte Goforth, and Beezie Moore greets guests of the Black Cat Bistro with a message of 'Save Water, Drink Wine.' - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • FELIX FELICIS: Felix the Cat, created by Deborah Scarborough, Charlotte Goforth, and Beezie Moore greets guests of the Black Cat Bistro with a message of 'Save Water, Drink Wine.'

Every August, in the spacious art wing of Coast Union High School, 30 students in Suzette Morrow’s 3-D Design class conceive of a scarecrow they’d like to build. In some cases, that could be a flaxen-haired mermaid, a rabbit, or—in the case of one of this year’s winners, Ana Bibiano—a haunting rendering of the Mexican legend La Llorona.

With a concept in hand, the students consult the local businesses that have offered to sponsor a student. They craft the creature by hand, and at the end of the process, not only do they have their own artistic production on display for the whole town to see, they also receive payment for their creation that helps fund the art department. It’s a creative and enriching outlet unlike any other, and the class has become so popular, there’s now a waiting list every year to get in.

The adoration, from the kids and community members alike, stems in part from the fact that for many, these scarecrows are their first real opportunities to build something out of their own imagination from concept to completion. Morrow even recounts how some of the students had never even picked up needle-nosed pliers before the scarecrow sessions began.

“It teaches problem solving,” Morrow explained. “You have to picture: The majority of these students, they live in apartments or they’re on their computers all the time. They don’t have experience with creative things.”

click to enlarge WOMAN IN WHITE:  Coast Union High School student Ana Bibiano's scarecrow, 'La Llorona,' recreates the Mexican legend about a beautiful woman who drowns children for the love of a man. It won first place for Most Likely to Scare Crows (or People). Agreed! - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • WOMAN IN WHITE: Coast Union High School student Ana Bibiano's scarecrow, 'La Llorona,' recreates the Mexican legend about a beautiful woman who drowns children for the love of a man. It won first place for Most Likely to Scare Crows (or People). Agreed!

At heart, this is what the Cambria Scarecrow Festival is about. The increase in sales it may bring to local businesses, the bump in foot traffic it drives into town, and the nation-wide recognition it’s received are all secondary to the imaginative impulse that fuels the event in the first place. It’s a chance for residents, of all ages, backgrounds, and interests, to come together and showcase their sometimes amusing, sometimes odd, and always original personalities. As the festival’s tagline pronounces, Cambria is a place “where whimsy runs rampant.” But it is also a place where the idea and practice of community runs deep.

“It’s given the town an identification,” Ott said. “When people think of Cambria, they think, ‘Oh, the scarecrow town!’ So, it’s really given the town a marker, which is good. … The scarecrows are so unique and unusual, and I think that’s really helped a lot. If you could get a bunch of standard scarecrows around, it wouldn’t do anything. But these are like works of art.”

At the festival’s kick-off party, as the creators and sponsors of these scarecrows socialized into the night, a solitary black bird perched atop the shoulder of a straw-covered man.

Even the crows couldn’t resist them.

 

Cambrian native and New Times intern Cliff Mathieson helped with this feature. You can contact him and Arts Editor Jessica Peña at jpena@newtimesslo.com.

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