By Americus Rocco
During the summers and early falls of the late Seventies and into the Eighties I was a carny. I bounced my business, turtle-like, along interstates and right-of-ways into a hundred small towns. I hauled some of the glitter and harangue, the music and lights, the sugar and teddy bears into gray Middle America. And most of all, I helped to perpetuate that delicious (and largely mythical) threat of Romany danger that once a year would tingle in the backbones and race through the heart's blood of my country. Every week I was the new stranger in town--loud, laughing and glib--too friendly, too flashy, but, oh, so fascinating, oddly lived and magnetic. By Saturday matinee time after the parade I had won them over, along with the greenbacks clenched in their fists. For eight seasons I capered and cajoled on a mud-caked stage, then disappeared back into the propane scented night.
Let's clear up one misconception right away. A carnival is an assemblage of rides and food and game booths--like a small amusement park on wheels--as opposed to a circus. Marks--pardon me--civilians often confuse the two. A circus is an entertainment of stunts and animal acts with clowns and jugglers and trapeze artists. It's a lot "glitzier" and involves a lot more skill. The two businesses do overlap to some degree. The sideshows that greet and tempt the customers before some circus performances are the pallid and PC remnants of the old time, no-holds-barred carnivals--the era of geeks and freaks and girlie shows; our meccas are both in Florida; and most of us have friends in both businesses.
John Mowder, Pittsburgh-based artist and owner of the Bloomfield Artworks, is one of those friends. He used to be a circus painter. No, Virginia, elves don't paint those varicolored merry-go-round horses, nor do they letter the swirled banners, tattersall the ring curbs or animate the sideshow frontage. An artist like John does it, painstakingly and lovingly.
When my season was over, and if John was still out with some circus (he jumped around and painted a lot of them), I would join up with him for a couple of weeks. It was a chance to wind down and to wean myself from the road, to gulp the clean fall air and to tan myself in the clear sunlight of October in the South.
John traveled about a hundred miles a day. So, with his schedule in hand I would take my time exploring the lonely secondary and tertiary roads of, maybe, the Bluegrass Country, or the Smokies, or the Piedmont. Then, one midnight, when the animals and wranglers and performers were fast asleep, I would rap shave-and-a-haircut on the door of his familiar house trailer parked in a starlit field near a town I had never seen and, twenty four hours later, would never see again.
John loved the whole circus experience: the costumes, the music, and the acts. He was hopelessly romantic about it, and took vicarious pleasure in watching the kids tug their parents toward the ticket booth. I'd let him recount yet again his earliest small town memories of the circus, of his anticipation and awe, of seeing every performance, of how its bold brilliance of color and light had had a lifelong effect upon his own artistic vision.
Less so than before, but still today, many sleepy American towns are enlivened once or twice a year by the arrival of the traveling circus. The locals awake one morning to find that, magically and stealthily, a radiant behemoth has blossomed over night in the backyard. Then young and old, hale and infirm, leave house and field, close the shops, and trudge or romp to that joyous communal experience of spectacle and daring-do--one that will be remembered, compared and discussed for months. A stickler for historical authenticity and traditional style, John felt entrusted with a duty to help to avail his own childhood experience to new generations and future artists.
I spent those days dozing and roaming, or listening to John and watching him paint. It was one of my favorite things, watching him paint: to see the bare aluminum skin of a trailer sketched freehand with a crayon, the forms and lettering quickly blocked in, the details and serifs delicately added. Fascinated, I would sit in the prickly stubble for hours on end, with a pack of smokes and a can of beer, and watch him manipulate his precious lettering brushed. Drooped and saturated with their heavy load, they obeyed the movements of his hand like enchanted kitchen mops, oozing stripes upon striped upon stripes, perfectly rounded circles, joyous faces, and finely spaced calligraphy.
I was always amazed at this ease with which he created his art, at the seeming lack of distance between his mind and the product--his brushes and pigments merely insignificant tools for transferring into the three dimensional world the vision inside him. While capturing a tiger's stare, he could still respond jovially, without annoyance or condescension, to the passing greeting or cliché meteorological comments of illiterate grunts. Without losing a beat the right side of his brain would continue to work on, subconsciously factoring in the day's heat and humidity to adjust the golden flow with a tip-sip of mineral spirits into a Coca-Cola cold cup.
With four cans of oil base poster paint--red, yellow, blue and white--his palette was nearly complete. He eschewed green: nature supplies it in ample quantities as fore- and background, frame and earth tone; he obliged orange, permitted purple, conceded now and then a dash of Hershey syrup. For circus art is fundamentally "primary" in nature. Its purpose is to tempt and excite and inform, not to threaten, or discomfit or challenge, reflecting a grass roots, pioneer, no nonsense, White American experience.,
Evenings were spent in the house trailer, where John co-habitated with his true Muse: Abstract Art. I remember distinctly the fall of 1979, when John was painting the sideshow of the five-ringed Carson and Barnes Circus. He had just begun to assemble the raw materials for what was to become his collage series entitled "FROM THE ROAD". The floor, the beds and the couch were scattered with snippets of paper, a few shreds of abandoned canvas, old paint rags, some cardboard, poster board and foil. The tabletop served as taboret for paste, paint tubes, brushes, scissors and appliqués. And I, the only person privy to witnessing his process, would sit, awe stricken and mesmerized, as the paintings began to take shape. None of the exactitude and precision of the decorative art I had witnessed during the day. In the sanctum of his house trailer his unrestrained artistic soul stretched its tight muscles. Here was an outpouring of the selfish image and instinctive design, a free flow of heretical composition and shocking patterns, a cacophony of form and colors--combined, considered or simplified, overpainted, reshaped or eliminate, torn, tickled and textured, smeared, smudged and spattered, split, layered and glued, repainted, re-cut, re-glued, again and again and again: miniaturized, maximized, concentrated Abstract Art.
I left the road in 1985. But it never left me. It reverberates in my city-bound psyche every day, calling me back to the whoosh and blur of the world at sixty-five miles and hour, to the roller coaster American countryside and pointillist autumnal hills, to truck stops glowing in the neon mist, and to the song of a million crickets in the cold, wet, Milky Way night. To the 'dramatis personae' of the road--the lonesome teamsters and CB mamas, the suspicious cops, the chatty waitresses, and the gap-grinned, grease stained ride boys. Give me a map, put four wheels under my butt, and I am as close to heaven as I'll ever need to be.
Recently I stopped by the Bloomfield Artworks to say hello to John, and he beckoned me with a Cheshire cat smile into the back of the gallery. There, lined up in his workroom, were what remained of the FROM THE ROAD series. I stared at each one long and intently. Suddenly I realized what I had been witnessing the beginnings of twenty years ago. Each was a tiny abstraction, at least to my eye, of our common experience and mutual love: the freedom and adventure and beauty afforded by the endless roads of America, here deconstructed, reassembled and tinted in John's inimitable style. In his personal Other World, salmon and maroon Appalachians dominated the background; one painting was traversed by a pale blue rural route that I was sure I had once traveled in Georgia. In another I discerned a lemony Virginian hill beyond a red-orange striped field. There a cloud sailed across a Carolina blue/pink sky.
And, perhaps, too, I was intruding upon some private vision from John's Childhood, one dreamed or imagined after just having spent a day in the circus. One in which storm clouds had unleashed a torrent of turpentine upon the departing caravan. And the trucks and trailers, stripped clean again to the metal, had splashed high their rainbow loads, to leaving a wash of unnatural colors, and of patterns divinely composed, on the roads, the hills, and the sky. On the landscape of his Unconscious in a memory of America-gone-by.
Americus Rocco, a local resident, is a professional actor.