Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up to see the Bearded Lady, Lobster Boy, and Sealo the half man/half seal – just inside this door at the University of Central Florida campus!
Just like the oversold promises of carnival barkers of the past, these midway icons of yesteryear may not actually be present, but you can see images of them at the UCF Art Gallery’s “Step Right Up: Art of the Sideshow” exhibit of original painted banners, photographs, sculptures and films.
Featured in the July 16-Aug. 29 exhibit in the Visual Arts Building are some of the huge signs used to entice spectators to see whatever was inside, whether an anatomical wonder, scientific anomaly or colorful carnival character.
The most common size of the era’s historic sideshow banners was 10 feet wide and 8 feet high, but one exhibited 50-by-22-foot painting of funhouse clowns will take up one whole wall at the gallery.
“I bought it many years ago and believe it or not have never seen the whole thing. I never had a place large enough to display it,” said Howard Marks, a local attorney and art collector whose banners are on loan for the show.
Marks’ banners date back to the 1920s and all have a Florida connection because Gibsonton near Tampa was the summer home of circus performers and painters.
“The clown banner is stunning because of its size, the number of characters, and its condition,” said Keri Watson, a UCF assistant professor of art history who curated the show. “I also am a fan of the Bearded Lady; she is quite fetching.”
The banners in Marks’ collection by some of the leading painters of the 20th century – Fred Johnson, Snap Wyatt, Jack Sigler and Johnny Meah – are an important part of Americana, she said.
“Circuses, state fairs and sideshow attractions were popular forms of leisure and entertainment from the 1840s through the 1950s. Offering the ultimate escape from the day-to-day, the sideshow was an area of the fair where for an additional five or ten cents viewers could see extraordinary people billed as exotic wonders.”
The brightly painted signs of this disappearing art style generally were created by commercial artists working for tent and awning companies.
“These artists used their imaginations, fine art, and popular culture for inspiration,” Watson said, “and they employed a variety of techniques to emphasize and exaggerate the contrast between the unusual and the normative.”
But today with printing companies and digital technology, signs are rarely painted by hand, and with the decline of traveling circuses and sideshows there is little commercial demand for sideshow banners.
Other works in the exhibit are fair photographs by Reginald Marsh, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and UCF photography professor Layne Wyatt; contemporary paintings by Arnold Mesches; sculptures by Rigoberto Torres and UCF students; and a video/sculptural installation by Carl Knickerbocker of Oviedo. Two documentary shorts (“Johnny Meah, The Czar of Bizarre” and “Ward Hall, King of the Sideshow,” made by UCF film students Milos Ajdinovis and Yson Dickson) will be on a continuous video loop at the gallery.
The free exhibit will have an opening reception from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, July 16, and will then be open during the gallery’s regular hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Yulia Tikhonova, gallery directory, has lined up some additional free collaborations for the six-week exhibit:
For more information on the gallery, go to http://gallery.cah.ucf.edu/