Every fall, a strange, eerie scene descends upon the street in a rust-belt midwestern town. Bathed in the surreal glow of the street lights, characters inspired by the works of Charles Dickens add a touch of Victorian ambiance to the brisk air.
More than 150 effigies fashioned after Dickens-based Victorian era characters stare into the distance from 92 dioramas as they decorate Cambridge, Ohio’s main street from Thanksgiving to New Years. This unintentional simulation of a Whovian-like movie set is a public installation of outsider art.
As a way to attract visitors to a long-since thriving rust belt town, a small group of volunteer visionaries started the Dickens Victorian Village festival in 2006. The founder’s love of men’s fashion blended with the subjects of his wife’s Charles Dickens book collection, thus starting the annual conversion of Cambridge’s storefronts into a Victorian Village setting.
Local support for the project grew. There are now 92 sponsored exhibits wheeled out annually as of 2017. These nostalgic scenes, based on fictional characters from the mid-1800s, line the sidewalks and fill the windows along Wheeling Avenue’s retail corridor.
Cambridge still has some buildings in good shape from the Victorian era, lending credence to the installations and the intended “felt” atmosphere of imagined Victorian times. Like many art pieces, the light surrounding them significantly impacts how visitors experience the art. These carefully placed life-sized sculptures have a very strange (read: macabre, eerie, grotesque, contorted, double-take inducing, surreal, or unnerving) quality during the day, but seem to come to life in the carefully lit streets at night.
Know Before You Go
Cambridge, Ohio is two hours South of Cleveland and 1.25 hours East of Columbus. Parking is plentiful. This town is family and dog friendly. Helpful hint: Budget time for day and night viewing of the dioramas. They really do appear different depending on the light.
Caveat: the mannequins are created by volunteers, some may be trained in some art form but most do not seem to be. The distinction of outsider art is difficult to assert with 100% confidence due to the large number of people that contribute to the works. This is a highly unusual collective, ongoing community effort.
The county courthouse, centrally located to all of the installations, has a light show at night that is equally over-the-top.