Saturday, July 23, 2011

Step Right Up, Ladies and Gentlemen!

I have a little thing for circuses and sideshows and carnivals. Everything about them: the colors, the noises, the barkers, the incredibly greasy food, and the brightly colored rides. I’m not in love with the huge circuses but prefer the smaller wackier ones. (And yes, I plan to use the work wacky at least once in all my blog posts.) I like the small town shows and the few existing side shows with promises of two-headed ducks and sword swallowers.

And I LOVE LOVE LOVE the artwork.  Everything from old circus posters to carousel horses to the brightly colored rides. They are so uniquely American. 

In Coney Island there is not only an operating traditional ten-in-one sideshow but there is also a class to learn banner painting. I dream of taking this class if only to be with others who love side show banners as much as I do. But in lieu of this I thought it would be fun to teach my Picasso’s Basement students about side show banners.

I had to carefully select the images to show them because some of the acts were pretty…well…out there. Early sideshow art could feature oddities that might not be suitable. We focused on people with special abilities and animal oddities: the tall man, the snake charmer, dancing ducks, and 3-tailed mice.

The students noted that almost all the banners had red borders painted around them. Since it wasn’t unusual for people to find that they’d been tricked into paying to see acts that were nothing more than taxidermied animals or mannequins, the banners often featured large circles bearing the claim “ALIVE!” to entice the patrons.

The children came up with all sorts of wacky (see! I told you) characters: Turtle Man (complete with top hat and briefcase), Pencil Sharpener Nose Girl, Flying Man, etc. We used large sheets of brown craft paper to give our posters an antique feel. First we sketched in pencil and later used acrylic craft paint that is thinner than tube acrylics but opaque and dries quickly. It’s also inexpensive and frequently on sale at local craft stores. It’s my new favorite for teaching but that will be another blog post!

Some of these are still being worked on but here's our first result:


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