On a drowsy summer afternoon, San Luis Obispo artist Sara Lane knelt beside her cow, dabbing acrylic paint on its fiberglass flank and then gently smudging it with a wadded-up T-shirt.
“This cow’s full of funny crevices, like the armpits,” the Cal Poly graduate said as she examined the broad white expanse in front of her. “I’m like, ‘Don’t forget to put paint on that spot!’”
Lane said the design for her beautiful bovine — sponsored by Niven Family Wine Estates in San Luis Obispo — was inspired by the winery’s butterfly-dappled True Myth wine labels. “Mythie” features the black outlines of butterflies floating over cloudlike bursts of cheery color.
“I wanted to keep it bright in the spirit of our county,” Lane explained. “If you were to look at this cow, you would know (she’s) from San Luis Obispo, and that (she’s) happy.”
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This fall, the Central Coast will welcome a herd of happy heifers as part of CowParade San Luis Obispo County.
The public art exhibit, part of an international moovement, will feature 101 fiberglass cows — some life-sized, others the size of Labrador dogs — stationed in businesses, parks, plazas and other locations around the county for seven months. CowParade SLO, as it’s informally known, launches Sept. 17 with a public cattle call at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and concludes with an auction in May 2017.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase our county and all the unique aspects we appreciate,” said event organizer Tom Halen, managing partner of Harmony Town LLC.
It’s also an opportunity to generate money for nonprofits. Local organizers hope to raise $350,000 to $500,000 at the auction. Charities benefitting from the proceeds include The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, the Heritage Foundation of the California Mid-State Fair and Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council.
Since its debut in Chicago in 1999, CowParade has been hosted in 30 countries and 80 cities, including Athens, Hong Kong, Rome and Rio de Janeiro. (Auckland, New Zealand, had the fewest cows — 32 — while New York City boasted the most bovines, with 450.) More than 10,000 artists have transformed fiberglass cows into 5,000-plus four-footed works of art, raising more than $30 million for charity.
Alan and Rebecca Vander Horst, who purchased the tiny town of Harmony in 2014, saw the inaugural CowParade installation in Chicago 17 years ago. They snapped photos. They bought memorabilia.
“We had a blast. We had so much fun,” recalled Alan Vander Horst, a Cal Poly graduate and third-generation dairy farmer. “Having been to the event, I knew what it could be.”
Recognizing that CowParade had been held in California only once — in La Jolla in 2008 — he made it his mission to make sure the event hoofed it to the Central Coast.
“Cattle are the love of our life,” Vander Horst explained. “For me it’s as much about the love of the cow and agriculture as it is about the arts.”
His beloved livestock will be immortalized as grazing or standing cow sculptures manufactured in south San Francisco. Of the 101 cows scheduled to go on display (the number was chosen in honor of Highway 101), 80 are the size of a healthy Holstein — standing 4 feet to 4 feet 9 inches tall and measuring 7 feet to 7 feet 11 inches in length. They weigh 125 pounds apiece; steel installation bases bump the scales up to about 500 pounds.
There are also 21 smaller statues known as Mini Moos, weighing approximately 50 pounds each.
To decorate those cow-shaped canvases, organizers have recruited 70-plus local and international artists, including Los Angeles graffiti artist Man One, Hollywood special effects artist Douglas Turner and cartoonists Leigh Rubin and Jerry Scott, who live in Nipomo and Arroyo Grande, respectively. (Man One will paint his cow, “SLO Motion,” live at the Sept. 17 launch event, alongside 11-year-old Dylan Ehmke of San Luis Obispo, who will decorate a Mini Moo.)
Also participating are students from Cal Poly, Grizzly Youth Academy and a handful of local high schools. Several local groups, including the Paso Robles Art Association, the Paso Robles Children’s Museum and the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, are involved too.
Their creations, each sponsored by a different company or organization, include cows covered in paint, collage, glass marbles, tiles and even thumbprints. Rubin’s superhero-inspired “Adventure Cow” sports a fiberglass cape fashioned by creative partner Ryan Johnson, while San Luis Obispo artist Carol Paulsen’s “L.C.” wears a bike helmet and goggles and has a water bottle tucked into her painted shorts.
David Nakayama, a comic book artist and illustrator based in Berkeley, channeled his Marvel Comics work in the glowering, green “In-Cow-able Hulk.” Zoologist-turned-artist Susan F. Schafer of Atascadero drew on her experiences studying giant tortoises in the Galapagos Island for “The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Turtle.”
Atascadero sculptor Bouba Boumaiz’s “Micow Distillery,” meanwhile, is a bovine micro-brewery.
In some cases, the future setting of the sculpture played a part.
San Luis Obispo artists Neal Breton and Missy Reitner-Cameron created “Dia de los Moouertos Cow” with Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in mind. Their design, which features a skeletal cow decorated with flowers, pays tribute to the Mexican Day of the Dead, Día de Los Muertos.
“We wanted to make something lively and fun that celebrated the Mexican and Spanish cultures in our area,” explained Reitner-Cameron, who founded (iii) Design, a local Web and design studio, and created The Bunker art collective in San Luis Obispo. She’s also designing “Plane Old Heifer,” an aviation-themed cow that will call the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport home.
In other instances, the sponsors played a role inspiring the design.
San Luis Obispo veterinarian Melissa Beveridge's “Udderly Exposed,” sponsored by Animal Care Clinic SLO, reveals the inner workings of the animal. Television director Labri Ferreira decorated her colorful cow, “Media Moo,” with a TV antenna, a computer keyboard and broadcasting equipment in honor of her employer, KSBY.
Morro Bay artist Brom P. Webb consulted with his cow’s sponsor, San Luis Obispo fuel company J.B. Dewar Inc., to create “John Cowe,” which resembles a 1924 John Deere D tractor with its green body and bright yellow wheels.
According to Turner, whose screen credits include “Beetlejuice” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” CowParade SLO offers artists the chance to stretch their creative muscles.
“It’s fun to see how you can work within that framework and still come up with something that’s different and doable,” he said. “It’s been both enjoyable and challenging.”
Turner tackled three projects for CowParade SLO, including “Milk and Honey,” which features a cow being embraced by a giant bear-shaped honey bottle.
Two sculptures — “California Classic,” which features an upright surfing cow, and “Marilyn Moonroe,” which recalls movie star Marilyn Monroe’s encounter with a subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch” — required Turner to modify his fiberglass figures significantly. “It sounds like butchery but it’s cowsmetic,” he joked.
CowParade SLO concludes with the cow auction on May 6, 2017, at La Lomita Ranch in San Luis Obispo.
But before that, locals and visitors will have seven months to catch these cows out in the open.
“I’m really excited to see what they’re going to look like when they’re out in the field,” Reitner-Cameron said. “It’s going to be stunning.”
CowParade San Luis Obispo County
To see all the colorful cows created for CowParade San Luis Obispo County, attend the official launch event 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road in San Luis Obispo.
For more information, go to http://cowparadeslo.com/.