Dr. Z's Traveling Carnival of Wonders (use "all sizes" for close details)

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    The term circus freak is a tough one to discern. Deemed barbaric and exploitive by modern terms, it was actually the preferred expression…by the “freaks” themselves during the long 100 year heyday of the American traveling circuses and sideshows. These were individuals who made a living (in most cases) the only way they could…by exhibiting their unusual attributes…even playing up their abnormalities to fearful crowds. By most accounts I’ve read, many of the intelligent ones were treated well. In fact some were revered in the highest regard; they were well paid, lived as extravagantly as Hollywood celebrities of their day, traveled the world and made acquaintances with royalty and the social elite. They found love, often with other freaks from the traveling shows, but it wasn’t uncommon to marry normal patrons who frequented the shows. Freaks with limited mental capabilities, however, didn’t fare as well as their smarter counterparts. Some had compassionate handlers but most were deemed less than human and were subject to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

    In the heyday of the traveling circus there were several kinds of freaks and most of which I tried to portray in this painting…your biological freaks…were born with (or later acquired) physical abnormalities they couldn’t do anything about. These were your giants, dwarfs, fully or partially conjoined twins, your lobster boys and bearded ladies.

    Another category are your self made freaks…often with an unwavering desire to be a part of the circus life, folks would cover themselves in tattoos or piercing and play up an exotic or monstrous persona. Often ticket sales dictated something more compelling than a clever name and tattooed flesh so frequently these folks also gained “acquired” skills like sword swallowing, acrobatics or fire juggling.

    Another category are your exotic freaks. An individual would qualify into this theme simply by being of a faraway land or culture different from what was deemed as modern or civilized. Tribesmen from Africa, South America, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines and the Polynesian islands were often exhibited as head hunters, cannibals, witch doctors, voodoo priests, and savages whether or not they actually engaged in these practices in their homelands. The most extreme and controversial case of this was an African Pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga who was exhibited in a cage in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo from 1903-1906. He was dressed in animal print loincloths, had apes as companions and was encouraged to act wild whenever patrons drew near. He was played up as “The Missing Link”, bridging the gap between apes and man.

    A type of freak I chose not to portray in this painting but are still important to note were the carnival geeks. The term geek nowadays describes a nerdy type or someone extremely interested in a particular brainy subject but in the original meaning, these were considered the lowest of the low; they were not permitted to socialize with other carnival folk. These were vagrant drunks or drug addicts, often picked up when the carnival came to town and left there as the show departed. Its known that addicts of the worst order will usually do anything for their next fix…even act like a maniac in a cage, sling their own urine and excrement around, fight each other and most notably…bite the heads off chickens. This was undoubtedly the most exploitive facet of the traveling freak show but it was well proven that people would pay good money to see people in such a depraved state.

    Not really freaks but an equally important part of the traveling show was the pickled punks and other curios. These were often malformed fetuses and animals preserved in jars. Usually they were fakes created to instill awe…most notably the fearsome Fiji Mermaid.

    I did this painting with no intent to exploit but only to learn more about our strange world and history. Purposefully I wanted an eerie, yet whimsical representation of the traveling freak show but with a respectful, uplifting, celebratory message. Here we have a freak show owned and operated by Dr. Z…a freak himself (see if you can spot him in the detail pics). In spite of my good intentions, I did meet with what I figured to be weird karma as I was doing the research for this piece. I approached a lady at the town library with an extensive list of books…all of them with “freak show” and “circus freaks” in their titles. As I handed her the list, she looked up from her computer and I saw that she had a severely disfigured face and malformed hands. My gut instinct was to retract the list and maybe approach someone else (or leave and nix this project altogether!) but she seemed unfazed with my list of questionable reading material. She called her associate on another floor, read off the list of books (much to my embarrassment), smiled happily and told me her co-worker was gathering the books now and I should take the stairs or the elevator to find him. I thanked her, then followed her instructions to retrieve my books. It turns out her associate was a severe hunchback, nearly bent in half with his affliction but he happily located and gathered my books for me. Both did an excellent job at their work but had me leaving there with an uneasy feeling of guilt.

    In 1984 an “uppity Madison Avenue woman with lofty connections and who has never been to a freak show”…(every book I read made it a point to mention that)…lobbied her connections in congress to pass a law that would deem it illegal to exploit, exhibit or make money off of any type of physical abnormality. Already waning out of popularity, the freak show was deemed illegal with both freaks and patrons alike subject to arrest. Freaks were suddenly at a loss. Even “self-made” heavily tattooed or pierced individuals were at a loss for work. Some had lost considerable incomes, large homes, all of their possessions and the sense of belonging, love and community that the circus life once provided. In some cases, without the means to purchase the expensive medications they required, some have even died or endured the loss of spouses or children. Currently some folks with severe abnormalities are institutionalized, living a solitary life or at best eking a living on welfare or disability.

    Whether deemed exploitive or a place for the different among us to find fame, love and a sense of community and belonging, the traveling freak show was an undeniable part of American…and world history. Incidentally, I’ve logged more hours on this painting (about 66) than any other. I hope you enjoy it and if you’ve made it this far…thanks for reading.

    Lonnon Foster, gregory.hergert, and 83 other people added this photo to their favorites.

    View 20 more comments

    1. undergroundtattoomd 75 months ago | reply

      Love that you included information, thanks for sharing.
      seen in
      The Art of Tattooing

    2. Lino M 75 months ago | reply

      undergroundtattoomd...thank you. was fun to paint this one.

    3. Sergio's viewfinder 75 months ago | reply

      seen in
      The Art of Tattooing

      ~great addition to the pool~

    4. CaptiveInnocencePhotography 73 months ago | reply

      Brilliant detail in this, and the written information is really interesting :]
      Good job!

    5. Lino M 73 months ago | reply

      CaptiveInnocence...thank you! I try to keep all my write ups interesting. It brings people back for more.

    6. valleyviolet 72 months ago | reply

      This is an awesome painting. I don't suppose you'd be willing to sell a print to someone trying to decorate her library? :)

    7. Lino M 72 months ago | reply

      walleyviolet...Thanks for your kind words and interest in my work. I'd be happy to see what a great quality print would cost of this painting for your library...as you've probably read in the write up, librarians played an important role in the production of this piece. One minor problem though...this piece will be a star at an art opening in a few short days. If someone buys it, it will be gone with only these pics to serve as a reminder.

    8. valleyviolet 72 months ago | reply

      Good luck with the opening! (Although perhaps I can't wish you quite as much luck as I could otherwise... ;)

      Drop me a flickr message after the show if the print is likely to work out. Either way, it was lovely to get to see the photo of it. :)

    9. 2r0xf0x deLuXe 71 months ago | reply

      the part where you went into the library and had an embarassing bout of karma was hilarious.. that sort of thing happens to me too, its just so much like something that i experience and it sometimes makes me feel like i am in some kind of seinfeld episode of my own or something. I was almost in tears of laughter reading that.
      great work stunning cheers 2 lino m!

    10. Lino M 71 months ago | reply

      roxfox deluxe...yep, it was uncanny to meet such strange librarians while doing this project. It was such a weird thing that the experience had to be written down somewhere. Here was a good a place as any. I thought about the experience a lot as I was painting this and was glad that I was going with a respectful, celebratory spin to this and not an exploitative one. Dr. Z...a freak himself owns the traveling carnival. He's the very little man pictured to the left of the tall giant. He only comes to his knee...top hat and all.

    11. Lino M 62 months ago | reply

      caliumanderio...Thank you!

    12. Tom Berryhill 58 months ago | reply

      Great story! I really enjoyed reading it. And, nice painting.

    13. revzillo_2063 56 months ago | reply

      Yeah a very interesting story that finishes this painting off with such Mystisim and Majesty .......F**KED if I know what I'm talking about ....but I think you know what i'm trying to say .....It's Magnificent !

    14. Lino M 56 months ago | reply

      revz art...yeah, I know what you're talking about. Was such a fun (and tedious) piece to do but well worth the time and effort. It hangs in my bedroom now.

    15. RinkRatz 52 months ago | reply

      Wikipedia - OTA BENGA - The human who was displayed in a zoo with monkeys

      Ota Benga (c. 1883[1] – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese pygmy who was featured in a 1906 human zoo exhibit at New York City's Bronx Zoo. Benga came to the United States through the action of businessman and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner.
      Under contract from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Verner negotiated Benga's release from slave traders in 1904 following his capture by the Force Publique—which had also attacked his village, killing Benga's wife and two children.
      Benga performed in an anthropology display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition later in 1904.
      After nearly two years of travel, including a return trip to Africa, Verner arranged for Benga to live at the Bronx Zoo.
      Benga roamed freely on the grounds and was encouraged to interact with patrons; he later came to be "exhibited" in the zoo's Monkey House as part of a display intended to promote the concepts of human evolution and scientific racism.
      Public outcry eventually led to Benga's removal from the zoo, and he was released into the custody of African American clergy.
      He lived in a local orphanage until he was relocated in 1910 to Lynchburg, Virginia.
      There he was groomed for the American way of life, dressing in Western-style clothing and attending primary school.
      When the outbreak of World War I made a return to the Congo impossible, Benga became depressed.

      In 1916, he committed suicide with a pistol.


      Ota shot himself through the heart

    16. Cass2286 48 months ago | reply

      wondering if any of your paintings were for sale???? VERY interested, especially in this one. I'm really hoping to hear from you, you can email me at Cass2286@rocketmail.com

    17. Theresa Thompson 46 months ago | reply

      This is a really wonderful painting! Always being fascinated with circus freaks- We chose do do our Christmas card in that theme last year.

    18. Lino M 46 months ago | reply

      Theresa Thompson...Hah! Great Christmas card! You can't go wrong with a circus freak theme.

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