If they only had a brain — scarecrows create stir

Sunday, July 13, 2014
DEERFIELD — If you’ve had the chance to drive by the Memorial Hall Museum in Old Deerfield lately, you may have found yourself doing a double-take. At first glance, it appears as though a group of colonial-era villagers have stepped out of the past to tend the front lawn, but closer inspection reveals their true nature: all of them are realistic straw sculptures, designed and built by Plainfield-based artist Michael Melle.

Tim Neumann, the executive director of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, which operates the museum, said the lifelike scarecrows were put on display to help draw attention to the museum’s “Tools, Trades and Tasks: All Work and No Play?” exhibit, which opened June 14 after several months of renovations to the building’s largest room.

One scythe-wielding scarecrow appears to be busy at work cutting grass, a father and son use an auger to drill into a stump, and another three attempt to cut a large log down to size with various tools that are also on display in the exhibit. Next to the museum’s entrance, a scarecrow modeled after historian George Sheldon, the museum’s founder, welcomes visitors with an outstretched hand.

Melle, who graduated with an art degree from the University of Massachusetts in 1975, said the scarecrows are composed of a wooden skeleton covered by layers of straw, which allows them to be posed in realistic positions.

The organization also commissioned Melle to build the straw dinosaur sculpture that appears to be pouncing on visitors from the bushes to the left of the building’s door ­— which he constructed on location as a demo at one of the organization’s previous craft fairs.

According to Melle, the sculptures are made of natural materials, most of which he finds in the woods near his home. To date, he said he has built nearly 250 of the straw sentinels, mostly as a result of community workshops that he hosts to teach people how to make their own scarecrows.

“I start by going out and finding some branches and saplings ... and then I get a block of pine to use as the hips,” Melle said. “I use the saplings as knees and the backbone, and I attached articulated arms to them so that they can be put into just about any position.”

Melle said he originally began building the sculptures after participating in a scarecrow building contest that a neighbor organized in 1991.

“He had the contest, and he demanded that I participate in it, so I did,” Melle said. “It was a big hit, so I just kept making them.”

His scarecrows have been on display at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where he built a series based on figures found in paintings by famous artists such as Claude Monet and Francisco Pizarro, as well as at The Lichtenstein Gallery and Herman Melville’s former home, both in Pittsfield.

According to Marsha Wojewoda, who organizes the Old Deerfield craft fairs, the workshops that Melle has previously hosted at the museum have been a big hit.

“We’ve had some wonderful creations in the past,” said Wojewoda. “One person made a girl on a swing set with her pigtails going in different directions, and that ended up on someone’s porch. It’s wonderful to see the items that people can create.”

She said Melle will be offering his next workshop at the museum in September. It will cost $100 for each group of two to three people, which includes all the materials that are necessary for the project. Melle said participants are encouraged to bring whatever props they’d like to include in their scarecrow.

“If they’re making their grandfather, bring whatever they want to make it look like him,” Melle said. “If it’s a lady, bring a dress. Wigs, hats, whatever they’ve got.”

Neumann said he liked the idea of having the scarecrows on the grounds and hosting the workshops because it “puts new life into an old idea.”

“He makes it very engaging for 21st-century people with 21st-century methods, but they’re still old-style,” he said. “That combo of contemporary and traditional craftsmanship gives these crafts a new kind of feel.”

The scarecrows will remain on display until the end of October and will be moved periodically to make room for the fall craft fairs.