I was honored this Christmastime, 2016, to design and decorate, with my whimsical assemblage animals, the NYC American Folk Art Museum's window, right near Lincoln Center! The display will be up until Jan 2 and is located on Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets. The physical address is 2 Lincoln Center. If you're in the area, please go check it out! Here is a video of the window display. Make sure to scroll further down to read about the conception of the design and to see more photos and details about the cast of circus characters!
Conception of the Window Design
I have been selling my assemblage animals in the American Folk Art Museum's Gift Shop for a little over a year. In May, I met with the Director of Retail Services, Stefanie Levinson, to pitch my idea of a whimsical vintage circus display for Christmastime. She was all in! My first idea was to have a large round wooden platform that would rotate with Santa in the middle and various circus animals revolving around Santa as if they were performing around the perimeter of the Big Top. I also wanted to have aerialists, perhaps stuffed monkeys, teddy bears and antique dolls, performing and moving up and down in the air above the performers. However, when I realized that I would only have half of the depth of the very tall and narrow window to decorate, and that we had no technology to create movement, Stefanie and I decided on a tightrope scene. I went back to the drawing board and came up with this prototype:
The idea of a tightrope would add to the whimsy, as of course it was absurd to think that horses and elephants could cross a tightrope!
Creation of the Circus Characters
As it would be a Christmastime window display, Santa had to be the Master of Ceremonies. I made a cotton batting Santa in the Victorian style with a cut-out from an old Victorian greeting card for his face. I found this wonderful wooden horse at Homegoods and proceeded to make the Santa doll sitting atop. He has a soft body with cotton batting hood and coat, which are embellished with gold trim, cream crochet lace, and brass buttons. I created a sack out of burlap and stuffed it with a bottle brush tree which I decorated with various glass balls and miniature wrapped packages. Dangling from Santa's sack and arms are vintage ornaments, German snowmen incense smokers, and various toys.
Santa on Large Wooden Horse
Just in case the original Santa was sold before the window display would be dismantled on January 2, I made a back-up Santa that could be displayed either crossing the tightrope or down on the circus floor. This Santa, also in the tradition of Victorian décor, is riding a vintage lithographed toy horse. He is in profile and his head is again made from a Victorian greeting card. His body is soft sculpture cotton batting with pipe cleaners for hands and legs. He wears a vintage hand-crocheted red scarf around his neck. With a red and white striped sack sitting behind him, he carries a white bottle brush tree and toys such as a sewing machine, toy soldier, sled and wooden elf. He is adhered to a wooden platform covered in white glitter to look like snow.
Santa on Antique Horse
I wanted to convey different elements of a vintage circus, including the now politically incorrect "freak show." Thus, I designed and assembled "Lady. Carmichael and Mr. Chips," my "giantess" walking her pet Schnauzer. Her head and arms are antique china doll parts from the late 1800s. I used a very large vintage Carmichael's Chips tin for her body, Victorian wooden spools for her arms and legs, cast iron shoe stays for her feet, and wooden spool ends for her shoulders. I decorated her and her dog with lace, vintage jewelry and embossed brass. She holds a miniature set of spectacles in her hand. Lady Carmichael measures 22 inches high.
Lady Carmichael and Mr. Chips
My diminuitive lady is named "Bellflower." She measures approximately 7 inches tall (10 inches with the parasol) . Her gown is an upside down Marguerita glass or compote dish, her head and arms antique china doll parts from the late 1800s, and her parasol is an upside down brass umbrella shaped candelabra! I decorated her with antique hand-crocheted lace, embossed brass, and Czech glass buttons.
My final "freak show" creation, is "Tiger, the Big-Pawed Circus Cat," which is not displayed in the original window design but was made as an "extra" in case other pieces sold out of the display. Tiger's porcelain head comes from a liquor decanter. His body is a vintage Tiger Chewing Tobacco tin and his feet are furniture castors, with the two front paws being extra large lion's paw castors. His neck is assembled from an oil can, brass punched plate, and an oil lamp ring. His head is adorned with filigree brass décor and a brass lamp finial. Riding atop Tiger is a clown figurine playing the violin.
Tiger, the Big-Pawed Circus Cat
Other animals that I created to perform on the circus floor include: "Corky the Circus Elephant," "BellaRina," the black ballerina cat, "Necco and Satsuki," the tiger with a Geisha riding atop. Corky's head is from a liquor decanter and his body is a wonderful embossed circus themed tin shaped like the big top. I made him sitting on his rump, with his legs up in the air. His legs are Victorian industrial spools. His neck is made with a metal Jello mold, a brass embossed clock face, and a black wooden curtain ring. His hat is made with a brass embossed escutcheon and a lamp finial. Around his neck is a chain with a pendant which includes a bottle top with the word "Corky" on it and a drawing of a clown.
Before and After, Corky the Circus Elephant
I was thrilled when I found a porcelain jug in the shape of a tiger's head! I also was thrilled when I found this vintage Necco hard candies tin with Cinderella style graphics. The coloring was a perfect match. The tiger's tail is a brass embossed curtain tieback in the shape of an acanthus leaf, while her head is adorned with a gorgeous brass keyhole embellishment and her neck with a brass filigree leaf and berry design. In front the tiger has a round brass embossed decoration with a satin bow. The tiger's legs and feet are Victorian factory wood spools. The podium upon which the Geisha figurine sits is a fancy brass filigree curtain tieback adorned with satin ribbons. "Necco" is the tiger and "Satsuki" is the Geisha performing a coy fan dance.
Necco and Satsuki
"BellaRina" is a very large piece at 26 inches high. Her black cat head was a 1930s or 1940s ashtray. It would've laid more flat on the table. Her tongue was where a smoker rested the cigarette and her mouth is open to collect the ashes. This is the ultimate repurposing! She stands atop a large round Quaker Oats tin which serves as her platform. Her legs and arms are also Victorian wooden factory spools. Her tutu is made from the top of a children's spinning top combined with a cylindrical vintage floral tin and tops from two tins. Her neck is made from a wooden dowel and her hat is a mechanical carnival ride toy.
"Rena the Ringmaster" I created to lead the tightrope crew. I found a wonderful vintage tin with circus scenes for her body. Her china head, arms and legs are all from the late 1880s. I used an undulating milk glass dish for her ruffled collar and adorned it with antique crocheted lace, an embossed brass keyhole escutcheon and a red ribbon. Her hat is a vintage party horn. Her arms are extended with wood dowels and her arms and legs are embellished with the crochet lace and red ribbon. In her right hand is her circus staff, made from a metal pole and vintage ribbon parts from a vintage prize medal. The pole she holds is wrapped in criss-crossed red ribbon and the staff has a center medallion made from a vintage brass button cover.
Rena the Ringmaster
Also atop the tightrope is "Cheval de Cirque," which means "Circus Horse" in French. The horse's porcelain head is a vintage salt shaker and her body a Hague's Pretzels octagonal tin. Her feet are pulley wheels. The horse's head and neck are embellished with gold braided trim, hand-crocheted vintage lace, Czech glass buttons, and a beautiful brass filigree ornament. Her tail is a drawer pull. Two clown figurines are performing tricks atop the horse, using the podium which is made from a brass candelabra and jar lid.
Before and After, Cheval de Cirque
I wanted to make a character on stilts, so I came up with "Stilts the Clown." I used matching vintage party horns for his stilts, a new Ambessa brand tea tin, and built the armature for his arms out of a coat hanger. I dyed wood beads to match his tin. His head is papier mache and from a vintage clown puppet. His neck is a faucet handle. In the window display, he is at the end of the tightrope parade, tooting his horn.
Stilts the Clown
In the interest of having a variety of animals for my circus display, I was pleased to find this lion head from a vintage liquor decanter. The body of "Lion King" is a Manning and Mackay's cough drops tin, his tail a brass acanthus leaf curtain tieback and his legs stained wood candleabras. I topped his head with a brass lightbulb sleeve which I bent into the shape of a crown.
This elephant piece, which I call "Balancing Act," shows two little dogs doing tricks on the balance beam atop an elephant. The clowns are playing music for the dogs. The elephant head also came from a liquor decanter and its body is a Heinz's Pearls' tin. The elephant's feet are brass furniture castors and his tail a hose nozzle. The elephant's head is adorned with a brass escutcheon and crochet doily.
Below are photos of my piece, "Amaretti's Circus Dogs." The first photo shows the individual pieces I assembled to make the sculpture. I used a large porcelain salt shaker for the horse's head and an Amaretti Virginia cookie tin for the horse's body. A brass curtain tieback in the shape of an acanthus leaf serves as the horse's tail. The feet are furniture castors. The horse is embellished with brass furniture drawer pulls, embossed escutcheons and crochet lace. The clown figurine is holding a brass bracelet which serves as a hoop through which the dogs can take turns jumping while riding atop the horse.
Before and After, Amaretti's Circus Dogs
Creation of the Aerialists
I had previously purchased a fairly large antique German china doll which I had planned to repurpose into an assemblage piece, but when I was designing the window display, I realized she would make a fabulous aerialist. I brought her to a woman who owns a doll repair shop and asked her to make a Victorian-looking circus outfit. I then bought from her 5 smaller antique dolls which I then painted to match the larger doll. I added some lace trim to the smaller dolls and found the perfect colored diaphanous wired ribbon from which to suspend the dolls from the window ceiling. Below are photos of the aerialist troupe dolls in various stages of completion.
Transformation of the Aerialist Troupe
Creation of The Set
I made the tightrope out of 3 wooden boards in the shape of an elongated upside down "U," which I painted a flat black hoping that the platform upon which my creatures would sit would fade into the shadows. The front top edge was covered with a large rope to give the illusion of a tightrope. I made wooden ladders that I stained and to which I attached four of the aerialists in various positions to give the impression that they were performing "tricks" while ascending the ladders. I shredded various colors of cardstock for the circus floor to give a festive look. Here are photos of the tightrope platform development:
Early Stages of the Tightrope Platform
Finally, there was the backdrop which I designed to look like a vintage circus tent with a banner saying, "Santa's Circus." I designed it and the graphic designer for the American Folk Art Museum, Kate Johnson, translated my design into graphic form and had it printed onto a large canvas sheet. This canvas backdrop could then be hung from the ceiling of the window. I did not get to see the actual backdrop until the day of installation, so I was extremely pleased when it came out perfectly!
Interview by the Local Newspaper, Nashoba Valley Publishing
I wrote up a press release for the local newspapers and e-mailed Anne O'Connor at Nashoba Valley Publishing who promptly responded and came to my house to interview me about the project on November 17. She did not end up using my press release, but rather wrote up my description of the process in a "10 Questions" format. Here is the photo she took of me and some of my circus creations and the link to the on-line newspaper article (which ended up in the Nashoba Valley Voice on 11/25/2016 and The Lowell Sun on 11/28/2016):
Installation of the Window Display
With the help of American Folk Art Museum staff and my husband Joe Tansey, I installed the window display on the morning of November 21. My teenage daughter, Alexandra, took photos and video of the event.
Step One: Measuring Where the Aerialists Should Fall on the Backdrop
Step Two: Zachary Hanging the Aerialists from the Ceiling
Step Three: Putting the Floor Circus Characters in Place
Step Four: Placing the Confetti
Step Five: Adding the Tightrope Platform and Performers
Step Six: Lowering the Backdrop into Place
Step Seven: Viola, The Big Reveal!!!
All of my assemblage sculptures are for sale through the American Folk Art Museum Gift Shop. If interested, please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com or call the gift shop directly at 212-595-9674.
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I am 57 years old, a wife of 26 years, a mother of a wonderful and independent 18-year-old daughter, a clinical psychologist who treats adults in private practice, and last, but definitely not least, an artist. Whew! That was a mouth full. My passion is creating one-of-a-kind whimsical sculptural animals, dolls, and cake toppers (with a little multi-media collage thrown in for good measure). I hope you enjoy my creations as much as I enjoy making them!