Credit: Courtesy

Edwin Austin Shaw: 1947-2020

Edwin Shaw, 1973 Self-Portrait

Our dad, Edwin Shaw, was many things over his 73 years — mask maker, poet, teacher, storyteller, dancer, Tuvan throat singer, bird watcher, songwriter, body surfer, artist, friend, father.

He was from a long line of Edwins and his father and both his grandfathers were Detroit engineers. Along with the family name Edwin was expected to be a builder. And he was, in his own way. But instead of drafting paper, his canvas was salvaged cardboard, a glue gun, and yellow paint in place of a T-square and drafting compass.

Edwin engineered masks and puppets — from a 10-foot-tall chicken to giant monocular heads — as part of Santa Barbara’s Solstice celebrations. The giant head had a full-size PVC-pipe skeleton, working joints, and a second face on the back of its snaking neck. The eyes were usually Edwin’s last addition, because once they were in, the mask told him its name. He’d say it just wouldn’t do to glue the ears on someone that you’d just been introduced to (Edwin was also a big fan of Alice in Wonderland).

Edwin in his iconic beret.

He wore these masks in almost every Solstice parade between 1974 and 2013, meandering between the various ensembles to interact with the audience: saying hello to children, asking people to dance with him, and playing games. His one-eyed, big yellow head Yelsbit was featured in local newspapers, and although he enjoyed that Yelsbit had some local notoriety, he showed little interest in sharing it with her.

Every Friday, Edwin would go to Dance Away.

He was born in Detroit on June 22, 1947, and grew up outside Columbus, Ohio. It was “the frontier where post-war suburban prosperity met abandoned farm lands,” he would say. He then moved to Oxnard, California, in time to become a teenage surfer.

His mother died unexpectedly when he was in college, though she remained a beloved presence in his life and writings. On May 4, 1970, when he heard the news of the Kent State shootings, he walked out of his UC Berkeley French class and never went back. Years later, he found out that he had nevertheless been granted a BA in Anthropology.

Edwin/Yelsbit in the Solstice Parade.

In 1972, Edwin moved to Santa Barbara, where he became a longstanding member of the Solstice, Dance Away, and poetry communities. His first two poetry books, Crippled Parrot Talks Back and Nightingale Do Not Nightingale, sparked an annual tradition of self-publishing small volumes of poetry, stories, and songs to give to his friends and family during the holiday season. In his later years, he published two novels, Larry’s Rock and Tubes of Time. He often said about his poems, “Read ’em aloud to yourself, or somebody; they’re fun to say.”

Edwin struggled with dyslexia, so when he performed in readings around Santa Barbara, he would often memorize the poems, which sometimes ran more than a dozen pages, so he wouldn’t trip over the words. Among the many places he performed were the Public Library, Presidio Chapel, Book Den, Lost Horizon Bookstore, vanished places like the Green Dragon coffeehouse and Earthling Bookshop, and, now and again, random deserted church corridors or stairwells with no audience but the saints affixed to the walls.

Edwin with his son, Toby, at Hendry’s Beach.

Edwin was a natural teacher. Every summer, he helped children at the Lobero Circus Camp build their wildest circus ideas out of recycled cardboard. And every school year, he worked as a teaching assistant for developmentally disabled teenagers in classrooms around Santa Barbara County. For years, Edwin was the Artist-in-Residence of the Summer Solstice Workshop, helping many Santa Barbarans to create their own masks and puppets. The folds of corrugated cardboard, distinctive eyes, and bright primary colors were always a giveaway of his tutelage.

When his children were young, Edwin delighted in inventing bizarre facts and fantastical stories of his childhood but would always tell the truth if they asked him three times. He loved Patti Smith and Thelonious Monk and the board game Sorry! He hated mint chocolate chip ice cream. He would bike to the beach before work every morning and could tell you the names of most California birds. And every Friday night for over 30 years, Edwin went to Dance Away on the corner of Arrellaga and Santa Barbara streets.

On the morning of Sunday, September 6, Edwin Austin Shaw died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones. He will be missed greatly by his family, his wide circle of friends, admirers of his writing and masks, and a few friendly guys who worked the loading docks at various Santa Barbara stores and would always save him the best cardboard boxes. Edwin always said that he wanted his last words to be “curiouser and curiouser.”

Excerpt from How to Write a Poem by Edwin Shaw:
everybody, including Billy Shakespeare, had to start somewhere, and that where
is usually here where language begins,
in the playful or painful place of trying to say things
we don’t quite understand yet.

Edwin Shaw is survived by his son, Toby; his daughter, Kaia; his brother, Richard; his sister, Barbara; and the mother of his children, Valerie. A virtual memorial will be held on Sunday, October 11. For information please email If you have any photos, videos, or stories of Edwin you would like to share with his family, please send them to the same address.


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