Cambrian: Opinion

Colorful cows hoof it in Harmony for parade cattle call

Artist Carol Paulsen paints a scene of Harmony on a fiberglass cow on July 22. The CowParade public art demonstration at last year’s California Mid-State Fair was a prelude to the countywide display set to begin in September.
Artist Carol Paulsen paints a scene of Harmony on a fiberglass cow on July 22. The CowParade public art demonstration at last year’s California Mid-State Fair was a prelude to the countywide display set to begin in September.

You can talk about it until the cows come home. And they’re about to come home — for an extended stay.

All those bovines grazing the hillsides around Cambria and Harmony are about to have some company in the form of life-sized fiberglass cows who’ll be making their way into San Luis Obispo County in September and sticking around until May 2017.

A couple of them will be taking up residence in these now-green pastures of Cambria.

Tom Halen, who’s organizing the event from his headquarters in Harmony, filled the Cambria Newcomers Club in on the impending invasion during its February meeting.

Fear not. The cows won’t be crowding out their native counterparts or producing any extra methane. You won’t get any milk out of them, either. They’re fiberglass, after all. But these cows will give art lovers plenty to chew (metaphorically speaking) on with their vibrant colors, and eye-catching designs.

They only come in two basic shapes: head up and grazing. But don’t let that fool you, because there seems to be no limit to what artists are able come up with using two simple starting points.

Since the first CowParade in 1999, thousands of artists have had a hand in producing some 5,000 cows, Halen said, as he went through a video slide show featuring some of their past handiwork.

Some slice the cows in two or change their shapes (one cow had an accordion midsection; another had been reshaped to look like part cow, part house). Some prop them up so they’re leaning against a phone booth, playing volleyball or flying on a broomstick. Some deck them out in such wild adornments that they wind up looking like anything but cows.

A scuba diving cow, complete with harpoon gun, air tank, flippers and goggles? It’s been done. How about a cow in a chef’s hat? Check. Or one dressed up to look like King Tut? Yep. Sometimes, they’re “just” painted. There’s been one in a Spider-Man costume, one painted to look like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and one painted to look like a soccer ball.

Some are even made to look like other animals. One photo online showed a cow from an Australian show that features leopard spots. Could a zebra-striped cow in honor of Hearst Castle’s zebra population be far behind? Stay tuned.

The cows will be staying here longer than usual, Halen said. The typical CowParade event lasts for three months, he said, but this one’s being extended for seven.

At the end of that time, the cows will be auctioned off, with some of the proceeds going to charities: The Land Conservancy, Arts Obispo and the Heritage Foundation of the California Mid-State Fair.

The artists — the overwhelming majority of them local, except for a couple from Bakersfield and Los Angeles — get paid about $1,000 per cow (or $500 plus 20 percent of the auction proceeds), and some of the money goes toward promotion and marketing the event.

The idea, Halen said, is to set up 101 cows — for the iconic U.S. highway — between Nipomo and San Simeon. That’s somewhere between the fewest (32 in Auckland, New Zealand) and the most (450 in New York City) ever set up during the event. Halen joked that organizers toyed with the idea of 805 cows, for the area code, but decided against such a hoof-heavy goal.

In addition to New York and Auckland, the event has appeared in such locales as London; Houston; Rio de Janeiro; Toulouse, France; Chicago; Denver; and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Edinburgh, by the way, was the site of the most successful auction, with a Waterford crystal cow produced for that event fetching $149,000.

As of February, 60 of the planned 101 cows had found “pasture” in Harmony, where they were being stored until they could be distributed around the county. That means there are more than three times as many fiberglass cows in Harmony as there are human residents – if the perpetual population of 18 on the highway sign is to be believed.

CowParade is still seeking sponsors for some of the cows, whose appearance will coincide with the Cambria Scarecrow Festival during October.

Some of this year’s scarecrows will have bovine themes to highlight the town’s sesquicentennial celebration this year, but cows aren’t a requirement, organizer Taylor Hilden said. In fact, there’s no set theme for this year’s festival, she said.

Both parade and festival promise to be moooving experiences.

Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896, @sproauthor