'It all started with a paper clip.'

For nearly two dozen years, a disparate group of artistic North Coast free thinkers has shared their offbeat, even bizarre, talents during an annual, summertime show, Allied Art Association’s nontraditional Prefix 927 Art Exhibition. Think Andy Warhol mixed with Peter Max and Alexander Calder, and some “Little Shop of Horrors” thrown in for good measure: Kitsch combined with artistic genius and humor.

The 23rd show and sale, which (as always) raises funds for the Cambria Teen Center, opens July 23 in the Veterans Memorial Building, and the exhibit’s sure to be filled with as many . um unusual creations as were all of its predecessors.

I wondered just how and where these slightly warped creative geniuses get their ideas, so I asked one of them. Artist Carolyn Berney described the evolution of her 2010 show entry. “It all started with a paper clip.”

While working on a previous piece, Berney had seen “some large paper clips of various colors, and I couldn't stop thinking about them and how I could use them.”

Eventually, she planned a piece made of miscellaneous office supplies brightly colored paper clips, pencils and erasers. Nobody else saw the beauty or possibilities, so she knew she’d set herself up for a challenge.

She also knew that “for the 927 show, if you don't have a catchy title, forget it.” Sometimes the piece determines the title. Sometimes, it’s the other way ’round.

Berney played with words the way she plays with nontraditional media. As she pondered the problem, she said to herself, “What do we have here and how can we relate it to pencils, erasers, paper clips? Oh my!” In a flash, she had her working title, courtesy of the famous “Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!” line from the “Wizard of Oz.”

Almost immediately thereafter, she determined how to connect the piece with the title. “I saw the whole thing in my mind a backdrop of paper clips — a rainbow yellow road and the Emerald City” — framed by one tree made of erasers and another made of pencils. “Since the story revolves around the yellow brick road, it had to be the real star of my piece,” she mused.

Based on that, her son provided the artwork’s formal title “Follow the Yellow Clip Road.”

Then, Berney had to translate her vision into reality, one step at a time. Some steps were obvious. Others weren’t. “The biggest challenge was to attach the pencils to the wires that formed the tree,” she recalled.

In the middle of one night, the solution came to her. “I had a bag of many cardboard sewing-machine bobbins that my husband’s mother had saved from her days working at Pendleton Wool Company in 1940,” Berney said. “They (the bobbins) had been pre-wound with thread, and she saved all the used ones. We discovered the bag after her death in 1996, and I just couldn't throw them away.”

The concept worked. Berney didn’t use them all in the piece, however, so the leftovers live on. “I suppose someday my children will find them, along with all the other bits and pieces that I have accumulated,” she said. “I have talked to many others who have ‘stuff’ on hand, waiting to be transformed by an imaginative mind. And we all know that as soon as you throw it away, that’s when you need it.”

Her entry won the second Best of Show award.

Berney immediately began planning for her entry in the 2011 exhibition. “My mind just doesn't stop, and I'm always working on a project or at least thinking about one (or six.)”

She won’t reveal this year’s title until she enters the piece, but the artwork took her four months to create and “has nine free-standing pieces. The theme is the stock market — an unlikely place to find humor,” she said, adding, “but I can find humor just about anywhere.”

Bingo! That philosophy could be the mission statement for the innovative, enjoyable Prefix 927 show, a wacky and sometimes off-the-wall collection of art due to be on display July 23 and 24, in Cambria. Of course.

Editor’s note: When the show began, all participating artists had to live within the area served by phones with the North Coast’s only prefix, 927. That was the genesis of the show’s name, long before cell phones were so ubiquitous. Later, as another prefix became available in town, the show’s name changed to the Prefix 927/924 show. But then several more prefixes came to the area, which would have made the name too numeric, unwieldy and very unartistic.

Editor’s note 2: Berney’s nonprofit art gallery, Caprice on Cornwall, is open irregular hours at 812 Cornwall Street.