Sideshow

Summer flies, don’t you think? The transition back to the school year is marked by the quick succession of seasons into Autumn. An abrupt shift, it takes a minute to adjust to time opening up again for all the work that was tabled during that interim period. At the top of the list at present, is completing of a number of circus sideshow banners ahead of the Conspiracy of Strange Girls ‘Cirque de Le’trange’ coming up at Turbo Tim’s Anything Automotive in NE Mpls on October 12th, 5-10pm. The event will feature live performers from Transcendence Cabaret, a trans and non-binary burlesque troupe, as well as an outdoor oddities market that we’ll be slangin’ art at.

These 4’ x 6’ canvas tarps are meant to highlight individual performers who will be appearing at the event, but there’s also a history of ableism to be avoided in their reproduction, as part of circus sideshow history included the exploitation of differently abled folks for entertainment. With this in mind, the sideshow banner remains a traditional art form that is fascinating to reinvent and which formed a ubiquitous iconography that was seen across the country in pre-depression America until the decline of circus culture in the 1950’s ( American Experience has a great documentary if its of interest).

Here, I’ve modeled the likeness of a Strange Girls Collective member, Mermaid Mika, who performs as a live mermaid in a lifelike silicone tail. The founding member of the collective, Rhys Redbeard, originally came up with the concept of Strange Girls in response to traveling to Brooklyn to attend a week-long traditional banner painting intensive at the Coney Island Sideshow School, instructed by Marie Roberts. Marie is the resident banner painter at Coney Island USA, the organization that also houses the Coney Island Sideshow and Sideshow Museum. She comes from a long line of circus folk and has been a prolific banner painter for decades. Rhys’ banners will also be on display at the event, and its been fun to be able to riff on the theme that inspired the Strange Girls arts collective.

Created in the late 1940s to advertise an all-girl freak show and side show. This piece was photographed for the book,  "Freaks-Geeks & Strange Girls"  by Randy Johnson, Johnny Meah, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell and was replicated by Rhys Redbeard, founder of A Conspiracy of Strange Girls.

Created in the late 1940s to advertise an all-girl freak show and side show. This piece was photographed for the book, "Freaks-Geeks & Strange Girls" by Randy Johnson, Johnny Meah, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell and was replicated by Rhys Redbeard, founder of A Conspiracy of Strange Girls.

In addition, I’m working on a banner that features Angela Higgins (aka Hazmat Circus ) doing her snake dance performance to be featured at the event, as well as a photographic backdrop that will allow attendees to depict themselves as a sideshow act. The idea with the photo prop is to create an opportunity to embrace the inherent otherness that is present in everyone to a greater or lesser degree. Through a contemporary lens, this mode of painting feels like a transcendent folk art form, whereby we might elevate visible differences or hidden aspects of ourselves to celebrate that which makes us unique as individuals. Rather than conforming to normative conventions that don’t serve us in the present, creating a beautiful icon around our flavor of weird flips the narrative on being ostracized for oddness, opening up positive space for acceptance that reflects inwardly and projects out toward the world.

If you were going to design a sideshow banner featuring yourself as the performer, what would it look like? Try experimenting with this concept on paper, just as an exercise in illustrating an alternate version of you. Once you have an image in hand, take a minute to attune to how this depiction of otherness makes you feel. Is it empowering or uncomfortably vulnerable? Why? What does this image have to say about how you present in public space? What about within your inner life? Try using it as a focal point for releasing or reclaiming internalized ideas about the shadow self and your own subversive superpowers. See if granting permission to be this character for a moment expands on any imaginative possibilities to get in touch with a you that may not have been out to play in awhile.

Note: This blog has been edited and updated after I realized that an earlier draft was unintentionally insensitive to those of different abilities. I thoroughly acknowledge that misstep and fully own putting my foot in my mouth. To anyone who I may have offended, I deeply apologize for the initial insensitivity toward this subject matter. While I am always working toward recognizing where I can improve in handling themes like this, there is always much more growth that is waiting to happen! Please know that I am grateful for the critique, as it allows me to improve upon what I am doing and to do better by my community in the future.