Fred Johnson likes to
tell stories, and one of his best is about a building he used to
work in. Back in 1941, Johnson's employer, O. Henry Tent and
Awning, moved from the corner of Wilson and Clark to bigger
headquarters a few blocks away. For Johnson, who painted
circus-sideshow banners, this was good news: his canvases were
huge, and now he'd have more space to work on them. The only
problem was that his new studio had once been a hayloft.
"To get up there," Johnson says, "I had to climb a straight ladder
to get up to the opening and then climb through the opening. It
was quite a while before they built stairs." The place also lacked
both plumbing and heat, so Johnson brought in a salamander, a
little stove that burned bits of coke. "It got so full of gas, I
had to open the doors and let the heat out. To get water, I tied a
rope to a bucket and dropped it down through the hole."
Johnson, was 97 at the time of this article, speaks
matter-of-factly, chuckling at times. He worked for O. Henry until
just 15 years ago, and he'll tell you it's the best job he ever
had--lots of commissions and steady work. Both were unusual in a
profession that depended on circuses, which are notoriously
most of this century, circuses used bright banners to advertise
their curiosity sideshows. During his 65-year career, Johnson--who
never studied art--painted clowns, snake charmers, sword
swallowers, and all kinds of human and animal freaks: "You'd look
at some of them, they'd turn your stomach," he says now.
Though not the most famous in his field--that distinction probably
belongs to trained artist Snap Wyatt--Johnson is the oldest living
banner painter in the country, and he did it longer than Wyatt or
any of his contemporaries. He painted banners for probably every
amusement park in Chicago--including Riverview--and he did two
banners and some scenery panels for the Century of Progress
Exposition in 1933.
painted from models, but more often he used his imagination. There
were plenty of times when what he painted didn't look much like
what circus patrons ended up seeing. In "4 Legged Girl," for
example, since he lacked a model, he painted the girl's extra legs
full length, when they were actually shrunken. Then again,
accuracy wasn't very important in the banner business.
"The secret of the banner art is the color and never mind if you
exaggerate the subject matter," Johnson once said about his work.
"The idea is to attract attention."
Johnson used lead-based oil paints. Ground into them were crayons,
benzine, and boiled linseed oil, among other things. "Not tubes
[of paint] but cans," Johnson says. "In a good season, I'd use
about 500 pounds of white lead." He'd wet the canvas before
painting to keep the paint on one side of the banner. "If it
soaked through, you'd go through twice as much paint," he says.
"It would eat it right up off the brush."
Most circus banners
were eight feet high, but Johnson painted whatever size the client
commissioned. He also painted smaller portraits, the panels on
circus wagons, and in the off-season, merry-go-rounds. The biggest
banner he ever painted, he says, was "for a bughouse--we called 'em
bughouses, crazy houses--50 feet long and 15 feet high. They
wanted clowns. There was about 30 or 35 clown heads on this
banner, and it took me about 40 hours."
By stretching several canvases at once and working on them almost
simultaneously, Johnson churned out an average of four banners a
day. Unfortunately, most were lost or destroyed as circus banners
were slowly replaced by more modern methods of advertisement, and
those still in existence are hard to find.
With more and
more people learning about and buying folk art, Johnson's banners
have become collector's items. Though Johnson liked what he did,
he never thought about it as fine art, and he didn't date his
work. He painted what he was asked to paint. "It was just a job to
Johnson claims to have no favorites among his banners, but his
grandson says that he did have favorite subjects. Clowns were one
of them, and he continued to paint clowns for several years after
He had his favorite
models, too. "Priscilla the Ape Girl would only let him paint
her," "And I think he especially liked painting her."
excerpt from - Chicago Reader July 13 1989