How I Paint the Not-So-Still Lifes of Circus
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It seemed so surreal, dropping off art to the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in preparation for the 2017 Folklife Festival, but when I saw the Big Top on the National Mall, I felt like I was coming home.
Less than a year ago, I met Circus Arts program curator Preston Scott, in my hometown of Peru, Indiana, during the annual Circus City Festival. I just happened to be there, as I live in Indianapolis now, exhibiting a series of paintings that I had done of the Peru Amateur Circus—a dream of mine since I became a painter. I also discovered that it was the dream of ringmaster Bruce Embrey that an artist would capture our hometown circus on canvas. Preston told me that he was looking for artists, just like myself, to come to the Folklife Festival and share our stories and our art. I was so amazed at what miracles can happen unexpectedly in small town America when you follow your dreams.
I created a new series of paintings for the Folklife Festival, and they were displayed and offered for sale at the Festival Marketplace. I was also invited to paint live on the Festival grounds and share the history of circus art. I have to admit, I was a little worried about how I would capture the moving targets of acrobats from circuses all over our country, both professional and amateur, but I was up for trying my best. What I wasn’t prepared for was the quality of the performances and the beauty of the productions from each and every performer.
During the Opening Ceremony in the Big Top, I was mesmerized instantly by the UniverSoul Circus stilt walkers who bounded into the arena, not walking but running and dancing on at least six-foot stilts! I knew I wouldn’t be able to paint fast enough to capture the magic and beauty of the performers and their boundless energy. Nonetheless, I took photos of performances to use as references for my paintings.
The weather was hot and muggy, so I quickly found a cool spot to paint. I decided on a corner in the makeshift Circus School, where master performers like aerialist Dolly Jacobs and tightrope walker Tino Wallenda shared their knowledge with circus students from all over the country. The younger performers, mostly high school and college age, gave demonstrations of their skills for the public in the beautiful old building transformed with trapezes and aerial apparatuses.
I set up my easel and began painting the highlights of the day, starting with the stilt walkers and a performer from the Sailor Circus who captured my heart on the lyra (aerial ring). When I finished, his fellow performers saw my painting and squealed with delight.
“That’s Owen! That’s totally Owen!”
“Well,” I said, “tell Owen that I am a super fan!”
From then on, as I created every piece, the students would come and tell me who I was painting, and I was struck by how sweet and humble they were. These kids are accomplishing amazing things, and they are disciplined, dedicated, and joyful. As a former performer, I know one thing: although it seems effortless, circus is hard. It can hurt, but you learn to smile through the pain. It prepares you to take on the difficulties of life and keep smiling and persevering.
I painted every day for five days and I will continue to paint when I get back to my studio in Indiana, but I will never forget the thrill of being a part of this once-in-a-lifetime moment, when circuses in our country came together and created something magical in Washington, D.C. Clowns and stilt walkers, jugglers and tightrope walkers, aerialists and tumblers did just what the circus has done through the ages: transported us to a place of fantasy and joy.
Beth Clary Schwier is an award-winning painter from Indiana and a former circus artist with the Peru Amateur Circus.