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John Mowder looks back on an artistic career that sprang from carny roots.

By John Mowder
Bloomfield Artworks
Through June 6: 681-6838

John Mowder was 10 years old in 1956, when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus was scheduled to perform in his small, isolated town in West Virginia. The show never arrived -- but instead of sulking, John sat down and drew his own circus. Thus began a fledgling artistic career.

When he finished art school, Mowder decided to try the big top for himself. Donning the carnival barker's cane, the ringmaster's top hat and even the clown's curled wig, he spent six months each year living in a trailer, announcing acts and painting signs. And during the other six months he'd come home to his studio.

After 25 years Mowder left the circus and opened Bloomfield Artworks. "I was ready for a change," he says simply. "I was ready to get off the road."

But the magical quality of the circus lingers, for despite a wide artistic range, from neatly realistic to chaotically abstract, Mowder's palette is bright and cheerful. His more romantic canvases portray dunes and hills, twisting rivers and copper highways that disappear into soft maroon sunsets.

Now, after 36 shows and four years as director of Bloomfield Artworks, Mowder is finally giving his own work the center ring. Filling the gallery's single box-shaped room, his paintings, collages and prints brighten the walls like framed pages from a children's storybook.

"Until I opened the gallery," Mowder says, "I think people didn't know about my other life." His paintings, though, suggest not one "other life" but many. Works from the '60s consist of basic, formless shapes arranged in earth tones. By the '70s the colors had grown electric, paint streaking wildly across canvas. A decade later Mowder's works were calmer and more geometric -- and nowadays he creates actual human characters, their skin pink and orange. Acrobats glide confidently through the air, and wispy, angelic beings fill the sky like clouds, hovering above beaches and houses.

Even his more avant-garde material is charming: "American Symmetry" is a beaming American flag with wide-eyed plastic doll's heads poking out of each star.

After all this time, Mowder doesn't miss the circus. "It's like a series," he explains. "I exhausted it. But yes, I still have sawdust in my shoes."