Notes On A Dynasty: How To Win A Scarecrow Contest Three Years In A Row

Notes On A Dynasty

How To Win A Scarecrow Contest Three Years In A Row

While this website is essentially a home for my comic-making and illustrative efforts, I have been dabbling with (pioneering?) another art form for the past three years, one that has gone without mention on this site despite it being the medium in which I have been most decorated and celebrated. After asking on Twitter whether there would be interest in a discussion on the matter, I have decided to recap my time as one half of my home village’s undefeated scarecrow building team in the annual village scarecrow contest, 2015-2017.

The contest began in 2015, and since then my father and I have won every accolade available to us with a series of scarecrows that might actually be my finest body of work to date, in any medium. My father and I have retired from scarecrow building now, as we have little left to prove and have no desire to “salt the earth” of scarecrow building in the village. As such, I have no reservations discussing our winning techniques and design choices here, as I cannot imagine us re-entering the contest for the foreseeable future; my hope is that this entry will go some way to helping those of you that may be thinking about entering the high-stakes world of competitive scarecrow-building, so that you may make successes of your own.

With that said, I present to you the first ever career retrospective of the undefeated Tucker Family scarecrow building enterprise. I also include our sure-fire tips for winning a local scarecrow contest, plus some insight into our decision-making.

2015 – The Intruder

The inaugural village scarecrow contest was held in 2015, and all in the village were invited to create an entry and submit it for community judging. The bar was then, as it is now, relatively easy to clear – as long as the structure was a minimum of two feet tall (no maximum was specified, although we’ll come to that) and free-standing, it was allowed.

With no benchmark against which to compare, no previous contests to peruse, we were unsure of both the scope of our abilities and those of our competitors. Would we be bringing a knife to a gunfight? No way of knowing. The other competitors were, understandably, keeping their cards close to their chest in regards to strategy – as were we. Normally cordial friends among the village grew secretive and tight-lipped; garages and sheds that were typically left open on a summer’s day were now permanently closed.

With no expectation or reputation, we decided on a simple model – a six foot tall traditional scarecrow. We (mainly my father) constructed the basic frame; a 2x4 plank with a broomstick at a perpendicular cross, the plank providing the central torso frame and the broom acting as arms. We then dressed and stuffed the model, but were still no closer to deciding on its main features or its USP (unique selling point). We were equally adrift as to what we would use for the head (the only item we had that seemed even remotely feasible was a partially deflated non-regulation sized basketball, which seemed too small in proportion to the frame).

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We then decided to add a twist; the scarecrow’s head was modelled to look like that of a crow, which solved the dilemma of what to use for its head - the basketball proved perfect for this; it was wrapped in shredded bin bag, to give the illusion of feathers, with a halved foam golf ball for eyes and a gold party hat as a beak. Poking out of the model’s dungaree pockets was a childishly-scrawled “to do” list of the crow’s motives. With this, we had provided our scarecrow with an enjoyable and rich backstory; a crow that has assumed a scarecrow’s disguise in order to infiltrate a nearby farm, and relieve the farmer of his precious crop. Perhaps the model had been scaled up from its crow-sized original, perhaps it was a Trojan horse-style contraption to be assembled under cover of darkness by the more dextrous birds. This we left for the observers to decide. This one design choice immediately transformed the entry - where previously some areas may have looked unpolished or loosely-hemmed, these could now (in storyline) be passed off as the work of crows who didn't know what they were doing (we would reap the benefits of a cohesive narrative in later years too).

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We installed the model, entered it into the “11+ individual” age category, and visited the other models; we were glad that we had seemed to pitch the model about right; there was nothing overly theatrical, nor was the standard so low that it would have been beneath our dignity to continue. And before anybody accuses us of steamrollering a children’s scarecrow contest, 11+ had no upper cap and due to the demographic of the village, was largely contested between hyper-competitive men of my father’s generation (the true child competition was in the <11 category, though – far be it from me to suggest impropriety of any kind – some of them did seem a little too polished to have been completed by two year olds). There were other categories – under and over 11 group (typically populated by the playgroup and local businesses respectively) - but the over 11 individual category was predominantly being fought out by retirement-age men and their large adult sons. I was, in this case, my father’s large adult son as we wrought havoc in a category ostensibly fashioned for young children and teenagers.

 "This was a contest for children!"

"This was a contest for children!"

The result came in, and we had been named both best in category and best overall. We bagged a WH Smith voucher and some Roses, and celebrated in good spirits, satisfied we had done a good day’s work. We jokingly said we would have to begin work on next year’s, though that joke soon turned into the opposite of a joke (or ‘not a joke’) when the reverend confirmed that the contest would return in 2016 due to overwhelming popularity. Work began on 2016’s entry a few months later.

2016 – Tin Beake

We were not allowed long to enjoy our victory. With the announcement that next October would see a return – essentially a rematch – we began to think about what to do in 2016. We had won the double in year one, and we assumed that those who had left empty-handed would be at home, plotting a sensational marriage of carpentry and theatre, in an attempt to secure a small box of Roses and a gift voucher for themselves. We were reminded of the Wayne Gretzky quote regarding skating to where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is, and decided that if we were concerned about escalation, we too would have to escalate.

There were a few ideas for 2016 leading into the spring. Then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was the first idea that came to mind, but was scrapped out of hand – initially because it was such an obvious choice that we suspected we would have direct competition (and would immediately hamstring ourselves at the ballots). My father had experienced problems in this area previously; at a fancy dress party in the village in the 1980s, he had attended as (a bearded, but otherwise perfect) Boy George, a cultural flashpoint at the time. When time came to announce the winning costume (it was a competitive village even then), the announcer read out “Boy George”, only for a vastly inferior Boy George to presume victory and take the title (my mother, who remains infuriated by this after she spent all afternoon doing my father’s make-up, has photographic proof to back up this anecdote; a photograph of my father’s well-constructed and accessorised Boy George, and another photo taken later – from a distance - of the pretender to his crown, the camera visibly shaking with rage). For this reason, we generally discarded our first thought every year, for fear that it would be somebody else's first thought too.

As far as Trump was concerned, time only served to confirm our decision, as - by the October - we would have been presenting an effigy of a sex-offending racist in a church yard. Not cool. We wanted something topical, but were hard-pressed to find a topical figure who was both instantly recognisable across all demographics and not a widely-accepted hate symbol (as you may remember, 2016 was a fraught time).

My father eventually hit upon that year’s idea – “Tin Beake” (his pun), a play on Tim Peake, the British astronaut who was serving on the ISS early in 2016 and famously ran the London Marathon while aboard. We decided this was a positive figure with enough cultural cache to warrant building the model around.

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We took the frame from the previous year’s entry and extended it outwards, so it resembled a longer capital T, and dressed it in a giant disposable hazmat suit. We took the crow’s head from last year and wrapped it in foil, replacing the golf balls for googly eyes and spraying the beak silver to give a futuristic, reflective space helmet vibe. A length of pipe insulation went from the "helmet" into the suit, serving two functions (first to give the illusion of breathing apparatus, secondly to keep the model's largely unsupported head up throughout). Additionally, we attached a “rocket pack” to the back, made from two short lengths of large silver pipe insulation and attached glittery stars from its base on sticks (taken from a party table decoration) to give the impression of thrust and boost from the rockets.

 One of the only clear photos of the rocket booster.

One of the only clear photos of the rocket booster.

During installation, we wondered how we were to give the impression that the space scarecrow was floating; we decided to take a pitch beneath the tree (also worth noting, the scarecrow contest takes place inside the church grounds, which is also a particularly old graveyard – while newer graves remain untroubled in the rear field, understandably cordoned off during the frivolity, those who had the misfortune to die in the 18th and 19th century must have their graves surrounded by scarecrows once a year). We hung our model from a sturdy branch with several lengths of wire, giving it a gentle bounce and sway in the breeze, which helped to sell the illusion of floating.

As a decorative touch, I had also purchased a six-pack of Halloween decorations; small crows, made with polysterene and realistically feathered to resemble the real thing. To them, we attached cut-off plastic bottles to imitate space helmets.

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We also remembered that we had failed to make use of the provided billboard space accompanying our scarecrow the previous year; knowing we would have a roughly A2-sized piece of wood on which we could affix things, we decided to include a dummy report on the village’s “Space Race” of the 1960s, essentially providing our lunar scarecrow with a backstory. I wrote up a quick account of the village’s space programme, photoshopping my father and I into the pictures – casting us as the village’s lunar scientist and his Soviet rival, respectively. The document was emblazoned with the logo for the village’s fictitious space administration, as was the space-scarecrow’s suit.

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 The two pages of additional story that accompanied the 2016 entry, "Tin Beake".

The two pages of additional story that accompanied the 2016 entry, "Tin Beake".

A slam dunk, obviously. An all-time career maker. A cheery wave at the stands after a shutout game. While we had noticed that the standard, in general, had stepped up in our category since the previous year, we bagged another double for Tin Beake (best overall, best individual 11+), giving us the vaunted “double double”. Another two certificates, another box of Roses, and another year to plan what to do next.

2017 – King Crow

 After bagging two consecutive doubles – and by now, an undefeated streak to actively defend – we were far more conscious of escalation than we had been in the previous year. While 2015 had been, in many ways, a lucky win, we had obviously taken a big step up in 2016; going from scrappy start-up to much-vilified dynasty, akin to Manchester United or the New York Yankees. We could not, at this point, go back to the simple A-frame scarecrow of 2015; we had escalated. I was haunted by visions of turning up in 2017 with an elaborate diorama piece, only to jostle for position with other equally elaborate dioramas, as our previously vanquished rivals cackled spitefully at our pedestrian showing.

We decided, then, that 2017 would have to go big or go home. After a little discussion, we decided late in 2016 to go for something so large in scale that it would essentially be impossible to ignore or overshadow. We considered a few options, but we came back to one of our original suggestions (that, thinking back, may even have been considered for 2016, but rebuffed because of the scale of construction) – King Kong.

 The original sketch for 2017, dated October 3rd 2016; one week after the 2016 competition. Much of what was to come is present in this drawing.

The original sketch for 2017, dated October 3rd 2016; one week after the 2016 competition. Much of what was to come is present in this drawing.

The attractive element of the King Kong idea was that we would not actually have to construct a much larger scarecrow – we could (and indeed did) use the same model that we had in the previous two years, but make it seem much bigger by attaching it to something that would boost its scale and give the impression that it was far larger. The idea of a King Kong scarecrow atop a skyscraper was born, and in the summer, construction and testing began.

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From the original sketch, my father was responsible for the vast majority of the construction, including the absolutely astonishing skyscraper, which he made with MDF sheets on a hardwood frame, spray-painted with windows from a stencil (the frame was spiked into the ground with a central pole, to which the scarecrow model was attached). My father and I are both well clear of 6’3” tall, so the photo should give you some impression of how tall the unit was.

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My contribution consisted of dressing the scarecrow, sculpting the basketball with wads of torn plastic bag and gaffer tape to give it the brow of an angry ape, adding the manacles and chains, constructing the crows in biplanes, and modelling a blonde-haired crow in a dress (again, torn plastic bag) to act as a Faye Wray substitute.

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Having seen the benefit that we experienced in the previous year from having a backstory to read, I was also tasked with writing the explanatory piece to accompany the installation. Rather than treating the model as a replica of a real event, this time I decided to go one further and describe the installation as an era-authentic prop from the village’s failed foray into film-making. The piece, and its accompanying poster, is reprinted here for the first time (I once again recast my father and I as fictionalised figures in the tale).

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 Not to toot my own horn, but this was – hands down – the best work I ever did for any of our entries. Not only was it the work I was proudest of – telling the most cohesive story of any of our entries – but, believe it or not, it actually hoodwinked a fair number of people, despite its outlandish premise. While most took it for the good-natured joke it was, some asked my father if there was any truth to the story; another asked with full sincerity if we had any more production photographs from the village’s film industry of the 1930s, disappointed this chapter of village history had escaped their notice. Even a village historian was unsure of the truth-to-fiction ratio in the paperwork. I cannot account for this, personally - it does loosely resemble the "history of the village" columns that populate the monthly village newsletters on slow months (one month's newsletter - which takes the form of a 30-page A4 photocopied zine about the village - once had a cover story asking if anyone else had seen the improbably large swarm of bees by the main road a few weeks prior to publication). The uncertainty around this was the biggest compliment I had received at any of the scarecrow contests to date, and another little hint that maybe this was the one on which to bow out. 

King Crow’s accompanying backstory left such an impression that even the organisers – when filling out the certificates – titled the piece “Carville Tucker’s King Crow”. Carville Tucker had been invented on my iPhone’s “Notes” app in a bleary-eyed fog after a long day at work; a week later, he was being actively discussed, researched, and commended for his bold foresight.

Needless to say, we picked up our third double (best overall, best 11+ individual), and in doing so cemented for ourselves a place in the village scarecrow building hall-of-fame. A wave of relief crashed over us, and after some discussion amongst ourselves, we decided to bow out of scarecrow competition for the near future.

When Alexander [the Great] saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds left to conquer.
— Plutarch

Core Design Choices

The demographic of the village electorate ran the gamut; from pre-school age to pensioners, with a fairly even split of and women. With that in mind, a few things that guided our choices every year no matter what we did, and seemed to aid us our path to victory:

  • Everybody has to get it. As much as I would have loved to do a diorama of the 1973 cinematic masterpiece The Sting, there’s probably a single-digit number of people in the village who would get the reference on sight, and two of them are my father and I. While maybe not everybody - particularly the younger ones - knew who Tim Peake was, or was aware of the 1933 King Kong, the concepts - space exploration and King Kong – are universal. They are, essentially, visual short-hand for concepts they’re already familiar with (this advice does not apply to the under 11 categories, which seemed to be dominated by popular culture figures relevant for today’s children – Minions were frequent features of the younger entries, and were often winners).
     
  • As P.T. Barnum once said, there’s something for everyone, and that’s something we tried to embody with our installations; if you’re a small child, you may just like the funny looking astronaut, and if you’re in your 70s or 80s, you may enjoy the mocked-up newspaper sending up the newspapers you would remember from the actual moon landing. In that regard especially, I’m particularly glad we made use of the board space to add additional backstory. These were obviously not meant to be read by very small children; they were there to entertain the adult voters. They also served a secondary function, which I only realised later; they kept families rooted to the spot for a minute or two, so that people waiting to read the board would spend far more time looking at the model than they may have done otherwise, and managed to notice all the small touches (Hay Wray – our small tribute to Faye Wray, in the monster’s hands – and the crows in biplanes, or the lunar crowes around Tin Beake).
     
  • They have to get better, not worse, the longer you look at them. The smaller details we added helped us here, so that the longer you looked, the more new detail you saw, rather than focusing on any areas that were perhaps unpolished or less than perfect (and there were plenty of these every year; it’s incredibly difficult to make these sort of things without some visual imperfections coming through). There’s always a little surprise you can throw in to delight and amuse the eagle-eyed.

In Conclusion

 The village scarecrow contest has grown from a good-natured bit of community fun to a bitterly-contested flex-off between its more practical residents; I like to think my father and I had a small part in that. The village’s older population came largely from practical professions, so a scarecrow contest to a retired population of makers and doers was always going to have the allure of honey to houseflies. The vouchers and prizes accumulated over the course of our career do not even touch the sides of the financial, emotional, and time outlay involved in constructing these monstrosities, but if you’re getting into competitive scarecrow building to make a profit, you’re always going to lose out and frankly shouldn’t even be in the game. You should be in it for the love of it, and also to assert your bloodline’s dominion over the craft of scarecrow building, prop making, and storytelling in your neighbourhood.

I will still, hopefully, attend the 2018 contest; I remain fascinated with the art of scarecrow building, and am always interested to see what choices others have made. While it will be bittersweet to walk amongst the installations as a mere civilian, I am satisfied that our legacy and influence will continue to be felt in that graveyard many contests into the future.