My Fascination with Vintage Circus
As you likely already know, I am a clinical psychologist and an artist. But what you may not know is I am an avid genealogist and as a result I extensively interviewed each of my parents about their childhood memories, descriptions of their relatives, and what life was like socially, economically and politically during their formative years. One of the things my father elaborated upon was his fond memories of the traveling circus coming to Palo Alto, California during the 1930s and 1940s. This would have been the Depression era, so any kind of special entertainment was probably scarce and something eagerly anticipated. He reminisced about excitedly awaiting the train pulling into the station and witnessing the circus trainers unloading the various exotic animals. These would have been animals that he and his family had never had an opportunity to see before-- such as lions, tigers, bears, and elephants. He described the efforts at setting up the massive tents overnight in preparation for the 2-day extravaganza. He would attend the performance the next day with his mother, father, and sister and so enjoyed seeing the antics of the clowns, the animal tricks, and the acrobats. In a world without T.V., this was completely novel, mind-blowing entertainment! The cliché idea of "running away with the circus" was indeed a fantasy of many children of that era. The lifestyle appeared so glamorous!! Because it was such a special event, literally the entire town would show up for the performances. It was something that brought people in the community together.
My own circus experiences stemmed from several different sources. I remember watching Chinese acrobats in San Francisco and being enthralled. Later I would attend Tufts University where Jumbo, Barnum's circus elephant, was the mascot. Jumbo had an ill-fated end to his life in 1885--he was struck by a train while being loaded into his palace car. His taxidermied body was actually donated to Tufts by Barnum, a trustee of the University, and that is how he became the illustrious University mascot. Poor Jumbo was to suffer yet another tragedy when the building in which he was displayed burned down in 1975! While I certainly had seen Barnum and Bailey 3 Ring Circus and Big Apple Circus over the years, I was most enamored of the Cirque du Soleil performances. The costuming, incredible acrobatic tricks and feats of strength and athleticism, and the haunting music all remind me of my father's stories of the circus of yesteryear.
I am very nostalgic and sentimental. I love stories and experiences like these. I also have an affinity for antique toys. These factors have influenced my interest in creating one-of-a-kind circus-inspired assemblage pieces that are reminiscent of nursery toys of the Victorian era (which often were on wheels). Of course my pieces are not meant as toys, but rather as sculptures to be enjoyed as art.
My first two circus pieces were: (1) "Fifi's Trick Poodles," in which the clown "Fifi" (yes, a play on the fact that poodles are stereotypically named Fifi, not clowns), is riding a circus horse and having her trick poodles jump through a hoop, and (2) "Le Cirque des Animeaux," in which a clown with her trick kittens is riding a circus German Shepherd dog. I am a bit of a Francophile as well, so I often like to give my pieces a French-inspired name (this one translated means, "Circus of Animals.") I also felt this clown looked very Pierrot in style.
My next piece was even more elaborate and larger. It reflects an acrobat doing tricks on a pole while riding her horse around the circus ring. It is called, "The Greatest Show on Earth." When I bought the antique doll from an antiques dealer, she loved my work, but was a bit chagrined to think that I might dismantle the doll and use her head and limbs for parts to create one of my assemblage dolls. So, out of respect for her, I decided to use the doll as a whole and that launched my design.
People seemed to enjoy my circus pieces, so it encouraged me to make more. I began to focus on elephants and came up with these. You might recognize the elephant heads as coming from Jim Bean liquor decanters. When I name my pieces, I try to use an aspect of the tin or the theme or the size or the type of animal. So, here is "Pagliacci e Biscotti," with Pagliacci meaning "clown" in Italian with the elephant's name, "Biscotti," coming from the tin used as her body. "Prodigious Pachyderm" is a play on the huge size of the elephant piece. "Ella Fitzhugh" was inspired by "Ella" being short for elephant., and "Lady VanderHeinzer" is a play on her Heinz Pearl's tin body.
Often I design my pieces as I go along, so it is impossible to take "before" and "after" photos. So, I purposely designed a few pieces keeping in mind the intention to do before and after shots in order to bring clarity to what pieces I use in my design and how they come together to present a cohesive whole. My first example of these before and after shots are "Corky the Circus Elephant." He gets his name from his bottle cap style necklace with a vintage image of a clown with the word "Corky" underneath.
Photos of the completed "Corky," showing the front, back and a detail of the head.
Here are before and after photos of my circus assemblage, "Cheval de Cirque," French for "Circus Horse." She is riding around the ring with two clowns who are taking turns doing tricks upon a pedestal.
And here are before and after photos of my assemblage, "Amaretti's Circus Dogs." Amaretti is the name of the clown, inspired again by the tin body of the horse. As in "Fifi's Trick Poodles," these dogs are awaiting their turn to jump through the hoop.
A different kind of elephant head was used for this piece, "Balancing Act," in which dogs are taking turns doing tricks on the balancing beam while the clowns play music. The elephant head is from an Ezra Brooks vintage liquor decanter and is more realistic in appearance than the Jim Bean ones. It includes quite impressive tusks.
Finally, two more horse pieces, one elaborate and one more simple. "Bozo's Trick Monkey" shows Bozo the clown directing his circus monkey who is sitting on an elevated platform. The horse is decked out in typical circus attire, with lots of lace and bows and an elaborate feather plume. "Prancing Pony" is simply an elegant pony with a horse-themed Cadbury's chocolate tin body.
So, as you can see, I use a combination of various recycled/found object parts and some new parts to create these pieces. I rely on liquor decanter heads, salt and pepper shakers, vintage figurines, vintage or new tins, vintage castors or new pulley wheels by Tim Holtz, antique wood spools (which make great Elephant feet), jewelry, brass embossed pieces, various hardware and industrial parts, antique buttons, lace and ribbon. The banners are made of cardstock and decorated with glass glitter edging. I hope I have captured the "feel" and nostalgia of the vintage circus. Thanks for reading my blog! If interested in keeping in touch with my blogs, please sign up for my e-mail and newsletter list on my home page.
9/6/2018 09:05:36 am
Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. I?d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you don?t mind. Natually I?ll give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing
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I am 61 years old, a wife of 30 years, a mother of a wonderful and independent 23-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!