Oberlin's Christmas Has a Hint of the Macabre
On a cold night, Oberlin art teacher James Peake is taking me on a tour of the city’s business district.
He helped judge the window contest. Most of these stores create their displays from scratch, hoping to bring in more shoppers, using a little Christmas cheer.
We peer in the window of the judges’ favorite display, at Herrick Jewelry.
A fancy table is topped with shiny presents. New watches sit in velvet boxes, next to a silver reindeer, a leafless tree hung with ornaments, and a little red cardinal.
In the flower shop’s window, a miniature town is covered in snow. The bike shop has a vintage Schwinn, wrapped in lights.
And then we come to a window that the contest judges did not favor. It’s designed by eccentric Wellington artist Keith McGuckin.
"Keith has been creating holiday-themed window displays in Oberlin for a long time, probably the last eight or nine years, and of course he has a reputation here as being very controversial," Peake explains.
McGuckin’s display at Simply Elegant Candle and Gift is eye-catching. Everything’s life-sized, brightly colored and dramatically lit. The aesthetic is comic book come-to-life.
An oversized candy cane reaches out a pink tongue toward his hooked end. He has a taste for his own sweetness, but will never be satisfied.
A Christmas tree grins crazily as he severs his own limbs with a hacksaw.
Believe it or not, this window is fairly tame, compared to some of McGuckin’s previous odes to the holidays.
"The Nazi gingerbread men did rub a lot of people the wrong way," McGuckin acknowledges.
His most notorious piece, back in 2006, was on display before the holidays at Watson Hardware on Oberlin’s Main Street. McGuckin titled it ‘The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men.’ It showed the little holiday treats wearing swastikas and saluting HItler at a rally.
Along with local news coverage, national wires picked up the story. Stephen Colbert even criticized McGuckin's work on his show.
Amid the uproar, McGuckin moved his cookies’ Nazi rally to a vacant Wellington storefront, after the Oberlin hardware store made him take it down.
Since then, McGuckin has drawn fire for putting snowmen in KKK outfits, and Santa Claus in an iron lung.
"I like it when people are shocked at first, I like that reaction," McGuckin says.
He likes to combine the quaint, the cliché, the traditional, with the taboo and troubles of modern life.
"I like, ‘Oh my God!’ And then, ‘Oh, that is kind of cute,’" he says. "That’s what I’m trying to get people to do."
McGuckin isn’t affiliated with most of the stores he’s displayed his work in. He doesn’t usually promote what they offer, and no money is exchanged. He just bugs proprietors until they agree to let him use their windows for his unusual art form.
They almost never invite him back.
"Essentially, I’ve been kicked out of every store in this town," he says.
McGuckin knows his sense of humor is dark, and not for everyone. But he insists he’s not all doom and gloom.
"Believe me, behind it – I love Christmas, trust me," he smiles.
Inside the candle shop, he shows off a more cheerful holiday project.
"Essentially, it’s Bing Crosby’s brain in a snow globe," he explains. The oversize globe sports a bow tie and a Santa hat. McGuckin pushes a button. It lights up in time with the music: Bing Crosby's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
Shop owners Amanda and Chris Heinebrodt stifle giggles.
"We’ve seen a lot of folks come by our store window, looking in," Chris Heinebrodt says.
For better or worse, it’s become a Christmas tradition in Oberlin – to see what the crazy artist put in the window.