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THE SCARECROWS - Nuit North (Huntsville, Ontario) - 2013


A large-scale public participatory water installation.


Historically, scarecrows have been figurative, human-like structures or effigies attired with remnants of clothing and jewels offered-up by a tribe, community or homestead through ceremony. The purpose was to imbue the scarecrow with a collective soul that could impart an energy to fend off incursion. These ceremonies often included performance in which there was the making of harsh sounds, shouts or dance to also avert any threat. In re-designing the idea of a scarecrow, I wanted to achieve a sculptural structure that broke with the past and its contemporary kitsch associations to create a hybrid that could lend itself to whatever river or lake the Scarecrows might find a home, as well the relationship to the four elements: of earth, wind, water and fire, and that would allow for public spirit bottle creation and a canoe ceremony.

More information on The Socrates Sculpture Park residency and background will soon be published.

Inserted renderings by Jeff Lei & Thom Sokoloski

On the eve of the presentation, each person who created a spirit bottle would meet at a point and be chauffeured by canoe to the solar-illuminated floating Scarecrows. Arriving, they would be met by the guardians who would receive their spirit bottle in a ceremonial exchange, a personal and intimate moment of transfer. The strength they created with their spirit bottle would become part of The Scarecrows’ protective power representing a nexus of community action and creativity. As each bottle is placed under the Scarecrow, a sounding would be heard across the water to confirm the Scarecrow’s collective soul.


Workshop – Nuit Blanche North 2013

T H E    S C A R E C R O W S

A new temporal public art installation by Thom Sokoloski and Jenny McCowan

Presentation July 13, 2013 Huntsville, Ontario, Canada (9pm-2am)




Throughout history, the scarecrow has been a figure or effigy made of found materials to ward-off the incursion of unknown and unpredictable threats. Through ceremony, they are imbued with a collective soul of the community to have the power to conjure mystery and warning to all that approach.

For this year’s Nuit Blanche North, artists Thom Sokoloski and Jenny McCowan will create three 18-20 ft. tall Scarecrows, representing earth, wind and water, which will reside on floating docks in the Muskoka River to protect the spirit and beauty of Huntsville.


To achieve the collective soul of The Scarecrows, the artists are inviting the community of Huntsville to participate in the making of spirit bottles (see how to participate below)! 


SPIRIT BOTTLES imagesInspiration to use spirit bottles comes from the long history of how bottles have been used as containers for spirits, messages, stories, ex-votos and outsider art, etc. They were often used as offerings and/or protective amulets created for divinities, holidays, incidents, lost friends or anything else the maker had in mind. In each case, the design arose out of a personal relationship with a story and the selected materials integrated into the bottle’s expression.


Being a northern community, Huntsville has a unique relationship with the elements of earth, wind and water. Sometimes they can be challenging and create chaos while other times they are supportive and bring serenity. As an inhabitant, we need your stories, creativity and commitment for this project to give The Scarecrows of Huntsville real authenticity!


Then on the night of Nuit Blanche North, participants who created a spirit bottle will meet at the docks in downtown Huntsville. You will then be chauffeured by canoe in a water choreography to the illuminated setting of the artwork (see rendering above). Arriving at your selected Scarecrow of Earth, Wind and Water, you will be met by a dance guardian who will receive your Spirit Bottle in a ceremonial exchange: a personal and intimate moment that leads to the realization of the power of The Scarecrows by night’s end!





To assist our participatory process, we will have an open studio in Huntsville where you can come to work, ask questions and meet with other participants with whom you can collaborate. We are located at 64 Main Street East, just past the bridge!


We created a Creation Journal to guide you in the making of the Spirit Bottle, so feel free to stop into the studio and pick one up.


We look forward to your participation.



Developing a concept

We first started to explore the ideas of what a contemporary Scarecrow might be when we stayed a couple of weeks on Christian Island, the Beausoleil Reserve of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) which rests in the southern tip of Georgian Bay.



In keeping with the development of a structural continuity of integrating repetitive form that could be applied and adapted, like the tents in The Encampment, we worked with the idea of a quadruped.


Since we were preparing a model for what would be the structure we would use in Queens NYC at our residency in August 2012, we wanted to define the sense of the structural space.



We started to think about the creative process we wanted participants to focus on. Keep in mind that during the process of creating a scarecrow, we would be asking participants to metaphorically “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of seeing themselves and community, and a new way, which would be strengthened by becoming more grounded in the stories, legends and history of one’s community through the creation of an effigy that would protect the zeitgeist or energy of that community in the years to come.


Participants will be involved with the creation of a:

‘Vision Bundle’ (an assemblage that represents the invention, discovery and/or artistry by the individual from Queen’s history)

‘Life Mound‘ (an assemblage that represents the life passage of the above individual).


Below is a video we made on Christian Island located in Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay, Ontario. Jenny-Anne researched the history around Jacob August Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914). He was a Danish American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer. When he came to the US, he settled in Queens. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. He endorsed the implementation of “model tenements” in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller. Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his discovery of the use of flash in photography. While living in New York, Riis experienced poverty and became a police reporter writing about the quality of life in the slums. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their traditionalism to middle-class ridicule.




History of Scarecrows

What is it about effigies, such as scarecrows, that provide such a sense of security against natural and supernatural threats to a community? Does it come from their position in folk culture, ancient mystery or ritual?

The scarecrow is a disposable figure/effigy made of cast-offs, as well as sacred materials, imbued through ceremony and set up on cultivated land or within an architecture to prevent the incursion of wild or unknown nature, be it real or mythical. Scarecrows are inhabitants of the periphery. They can conjure a mystery that can be experienced outside of time by stirring the imagination with unknowns.


A life force that gives the power of protection without the controls exercised by reason and fact is particularly frightening, and such creatures have been prominent from pagan to contemporary culture.

Farming has always been subject to the whims of nature, and the farmer has always lived at the mercy of a capricious environment. A sudden drought or flood could result in starvation. An infestation of pests, birds and carnivores could devastate crops and livestock; a plague could destroy everything, and more importantly, life.


Scarecrows served as effigies to prevent or raise fear in the perception of an invader, to subvert or halt infringement. Like the gargoyles on the gothic cathedral, the scarecrow could be likened to a hex to protect the farm from harm and keep evil spirits away.


The first scarecrows in recorded history were constructed along the Nile River to protect wheat fields from flocks of quail. Egyptian farmers put wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets, hid in the fields and scared the quail into them.


In the fields of ancient Greece, wooden statues were placed in the fields, carved to represent Priapus. Although he was the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, Priapus was born hideously ugly, and his most prominent feature was his constant Satyr-like erection. Vineyard keepers noticed that when Priapus played in their fields birds stayed away from the grapes and the harvest was bountiful. Other farmers began to make statues that looked like Priapus to use in their vineyards.


Pre-feudal Japan used different kinds of scarecrows in their rice fields, but the most popular one was the kakashi. Old dirty rags and noisemakers like bells and sticks were mounted on a pole in the field and then lit on fire. The flames kept birds and other animals away from the rice fields. The word kakashi meant “something stinky.”


During the Middle Ages in Britain and Europe, small children worked as crow-scarers. Their job was to run around in the fields, clapping blocks of wood together, to frighten away birds that might eat the grain. As the medieval period wound down and populations decreased due to plague, farmers discovered there was a shortage of spare children to scamper around shooing birds away. Instead, they stuffed old clothes with straw, placed a turnip or gourd up on top, and mounted the figure in the fields.

In Italy skulls of animals were placed on the tops of tall poles in the fields. Farmers believed the skulls would scare away birds and protect crops from diseases. In Germany, farmers made wooden witches and put them in their fields at the end of winter. They believed that witches would draw the evil spirit of winter into their bodies so spring could come.


Scarecrows are also found in First Nation cultures throughout the Americas. In some parts of what is now Virginia and the Carolinas, adult men sat on raised platforms and shouted at birds or ground animals that came near the crops. In the American Southwest, the Zunis placed cedar poles about 6 to 9 feet apart all over the cornfield. Cords made from the fiber of the yucca plants were strung from pole to pole like clotheslines. Rags, pieces of dog and coyote skins, and the shoulder blades of animals were hung from the lines. The waving and clacking of the blades kept most birds away.


The European idea of scarecrows came to the Americas as waves of emigrants left Europe. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them the bootzamon, or bogeyman, which stood guard over the fields. Sometimes a female counterpart was added to the opposite end of the field or orchard. During the Autumn Equinox (Mabon) the Wicca community would craft scarecrows representing the fallen god of vegetation. Eventually, the ideas of Native and European scarecrows began to intertwine and result in altered expressions more representative of the diversity of peoples.


Ecuador has a unique custom of making scarecrows and burning them at midnight. They dress up and fill the scarecrows with newspapers and pieces of wood. As midnight approaches, everyone gathers outside their home and each family burns their scarecrow. The tradition says that this destroys all the bad things that took place in the past 12 months. The scarecrow also scares bad luck. This fills their New Year with luck and happiness.


In Mexico effigies of whirling dancers were mounted in fields of maize to protect new households from returning spirits which haunted the lands and caused drought and insect infestation.


On December 7, a deeply rooted tradition takes place in Guatemala, where the streets are filled with bonfires and the sky is covered by smoke. It is the traditional burning of everyone’s hand-made effigy of the devil, which is a way to expel all the evil from people’s houses and lives.


All through the areas of Rio Negro of Brazil and Venezuela, inhabited by Arawakan peoples, is a rich history of shamanism which incorporated effigies into its rites and rituals of protection and regeneration.

The question arose, “What would be the nature of our Scarecrows?” As we go into this process and workshop we are hoping that this question, and the many more resonating from it, will be rendered and answered.


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