watercolor/ink 9x12

In July of 2009 I received an e-mail from curator-extraordinaire Kory Rogers asking me to take part in a circus themed exhibit for the Shelburne museum's 2010 season. I immediately divised a plan and got to work on several sketches. My circus comics are only partially based in fact, so for this exhibit I wanted to present real sideshow performers as they appeared in advertisements and posters during their lifetimes, only with my own perspective and style.


Patt Kelley

Illustrator Patt Kelley finds inspiration for the freakish characters in his Parasitic Twin series of "comics that grow on you," in the true-lives of historic sideshow performers.  Combining twisted humor with a unique style of illustration, Kelley's comics elicit the same visceral reaction of shock and amazement one experiences inside a sideshow tent.  An avid collector and connoisseur of freak memorabilia, Kelley suffuses the hilariously absurd storylines of his comics with historical facts garnered from his research.  Ranging from four-legged girls to lobster boys, Kelley's characters possess severe physical abnormalities that became the basis for their misadventures.  Although disturbing and graphic, the comic's plots are never mean-spirited, but rather reflect and underscore the characters' humanity.

For Circus Day in America, Patt Kellley has created a series of watercolor posters and mixed media sculptures inspired by his favorite circus freaks.  Some of the posters in this installation are based on actual advertising Ephemera executed in Kelley's style of illustration and others are his own creations.  Looking as though they jumped off the pages of Kelley's comics, the sculptures portray Frances O'Connor the living Venus De Milo, and jojo the Dog-Faced boy.




watercolor/ink 30x22.5"

My favorite sketch overall was Serpentina. In real life Serpentina was born with no bones in her body besides her skull and a few in her arms. A pitch booklet of hers states that in early development her cartilage never turned to bone.

My favorite part of the poster is all of the money and jewelery underneath her pillow. She didn't trust banks, so she invested in diamonds and rings that she kept on or under her at all times.




Lobster Boy
watercolor/ink 12x18"

Next up was the Lobster Boy. Grady Stiles didn't have a happy life. He was born with a hereditary condition known as ectrodactyly that caused his fingers and toes to fuse together. He was also a big drinker, who was later in life charged in the murder of his daughter's boyfriend and eventually murdered himself.

Cheery story aside, with Grady I wanted to play up the lobster angle and place him among countless sea beasties.



The Wildmen of Borneo
watercolor/ink 30x22.5"

This was a fun poster to work on. I had just finished with the tedium of the Lobster Boy and the countless sea creatures and figured it was time for a huge poster with 50-60 detailed individual people. It took a while, but it was really cool to see it all come together.

As for Waino and Plutano.... Not actually wild men, and not actually from Borneo; Hiram and Barney were merely dwarf brothers. Although they were both slow, they were extremely strong. Part of their act included lifting weights as well as members of the audience.



The Seven Sutherland Sisters
watercolor/ink 12x18"

I wanted to do a feminine poster and had just purchased an old photograph of the Sutherland Sisters which brought some inspiration.

Where as most of the sideshow performers suffered from diseases or genetic conditions, The Sutherland Sisters just had abnormally long hair. They were beautiful, and to do a piece that didn't characterize that wouldn't do the sisters any justice.

I made their hair the focal point of the piece, I wanted them swimming in it. To play up their femininity I used lots of pinks and purples.



The Tattooed Couple
watercolor/ink 12x18"
I was finally narrowing down the pieces I wanted to do. It was pretty much set in stone, and then I took a trip to NY where I found Amelia Klem Osterud's book The Tattooed Lady. (If you have any interest in the subject pick it up, it's a fantastic read with amazing photographs.)

I was immediately drawn to tattooed couple Frank and Annie Howard and knew I had to do a tattoo piece. I made everything stark. White with shadows. I then did the exaggerated brightly colored tattoos to really make them stand out. It had to be a very simple piece. Too much detail and the tattoos would have just faded into the background.



The Two Headed Nightingale
watercolor/ink 12x18"
They were born into slavery in the mid 1800's and eventually kidnapped, brought to Europe, and exhibited in various sideshows there. Eventually after the Civil War their mother tracked them down and brought them home. They exhibited with various shows in the US throughout their lives. They died rich ladies.

Millie Christine's story is one of the more inspirational in the context of sideshow history, and for that alone felt as though they must be included in this exhibit. During their career they hobnobbed with royalty and the elite, which is evident in their posters for the Batchellor and Doris shows. I was going to do this poster much like one of the originals, but after consideration really wanted to put my own spin on it. (...and yes that's my cat Spencer their holding.)


Four Legged Girl
watercolor/ink 32x40"

When I took on this assignment I knew that I would have to do some pretty big paintings. For the most part I work around in the neighborhood of 11x14". Sometimes bigger, but usually not by much (and never three and a half feet tall). This was the big one. I honestly don't know if I've ever worked this large. Definitely not with watercolor. So for the subject I knew that it had to be four legged girl Myrtle Corbin.

Several years ago I found a Chas. Eisenmann photo of Myrtle, and was really blown away by it. It was amazing. Myrtle was born with two bodies from the waist down. It's said that after she married she had five children. Three from one body, two from the other. Ever since I've been fascinated by sideshows and circus freaks. It's the reason I started my comic Parasitic Twin.

So I set to work on enormous Myrtle. Did the underdrawing, started the watercolor and had a heart attack. I knew the paper seemed strange, it was a different thickness than I'm used to, but didn't think twice about it. The second I touched the paint to the paper it sucked up the paint and dried almost immediately. It was like watercoloring a dry sponge. I had my heart attack and decided to paint a little further and see if it could be saved. Thankfully it could, and ended up looking awesome. It took me a while to get used to the paper, but in the end made something great out of a bad situation. (huge sigh of relief)




The Living Venus Demilo
Magic Sculpt, Acrylic Paint, Cotton Balls W12xL16xH20"

I had dabbled in 3d with Kidrobot Munnys and sculpey. I had never made a sculpture before. Not without a pre-fab armiture.

For a while I've collected old pitchcards and photographs of circus freaks and sideshow performers. My very first was an autographed postcard from the 1920's of Living Venus Demilo Frances O'Connor. She was known for doing things on stage with her feet including pouring a glass of water and drinking from it, lighting a cigarette and smoking it, as well as loading aiming and shooting a rifle. As much as I would have loved to incorporate weaponry into the exhibit somehow I thought a plume of cotton smoke would be much more visibly pleasing.



The Russian Dog Faced Boy
Magic Sculpt, Acrylic Paint, Human Hair
Yup. You read that right; "Human Hair". A sideshow exhibit wouldn't be complete without JoJo the Russian Dog Faced Boy. He is without a doubt the most famous sideshow freak in history. He had a condition called hypertrichosis which left him with an abundance of hair all over his body and covering his face.

Now I easily could have sculpted hair, but figured real hair would leave more of an impact. My lovely wife Kristi (after some coaxing) decided to donate some of her hair to the cause. This seems to be one of the favorites in the exhibit, and I keep telling my wife that she has the honor of having her hair in a museum.



Circus Day in America
9 pieces for the Shelburne Museum

So here it is. The museum opened in May of 2010 and will be open throughout the end of October 2010. If you're in VT at all please stop by and check it out. It's an amazing exhibit and a really fun museum. More info available at


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