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Johnny Meah is the end
of the line—the last carnival sideshow banner painter. His story
is a kind of parable for many other jobs. His industry, which is
also a rich artistic tradition, is vanishing underneath him. Like
many graphic artists with talent and expertise, he is being
displaced by radical shifts in technology and the
can spot the last vestiges of Meah’s work a few miles from Manhattan, in the
summer when the carnival comes to New Jersey's Meadowlands fairgrounds. The
barker (yes, they still exist,
as President Obama learned recently)
touts human oddities and wonders in front of a range of Meah’s painted banners
at “Worlds of Wonder.” There’s the man who, as the banner seems to suggest,
hammers nails into his head and the woman who hangs by her hair. But more
often Meah’s work is appreciated at the American Folk Art Museum or galleries
like Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago.
catches the eye of the visual artist in Meah’s painting and other carnival
banners is its employment of bold colors, forced perspective and shadowed
lettering. There is a complex language of conventionalized stage curtains in
the banners, along with framing and accenting starbursts. The visual rhetoric
of the banners corresponds to the verbal rhetoric of the sideshow pitchman,
with his appeal to customers.
Geeks, Freaks and Wild Girls,
Meah discusses his years with the sideshow. I interviewed him recently, and he
explained some of the rules and customs of the art to me. He was drawn to
painting banners by the challenge of ringing changes on stock situations. He
takes conventions and clichés and gives them new twists, like a singer
reinterpreting and reviving pop standards.
beneath the artistic appeal of banners today lies their original function: The
sideshow is a business, and banners are its sales reps.
unavoidable truth is that Meah’s art was employed in the service of an
illusion—a gaffe, as the carnival folk call it. It was, in short, a scam—a
business that persuaded people to pay money to view humans with misfit limbs
or to stare at biological specimens preserved by chemicals or drying.
banners converted dreary realities into fantasies. They were a form of
theater—curtains framing the barker in his box, the ticket taker and the
entrance to the tent.
concerns lent the banners some of the features we now see as artistic. For
instance, the sideshow banners most prized by collectors, Meah says, are
bordered in orange. That, he explains, is because steel grommets or rings for
the ropes used to hold up the banners often rust: the orange camouflaged the
convention is the so-called “Alive!” bullet, the circle or starburst that
looks like the ones on product packages bragging “New and Improved.” “There
was a period when there were many ‘stiff shows,’ as we called them,” explains
Meah. “That is, shows with fetuses in alcohol or oddities in formaldehyde. The
public got burned out on being duped. So the bullet with ‘Alive’ was added.”
are tricky claims in the language of posters. “Oddities Past and Present” is
legalistic language that allows the banners to depict items that have been
shown in the carnival before but might not be any longer (just in case
part of a tradition that goes back to the 19th century. His predecessors are
artists like Snap Wyatt and Fred Johnson whose signed work is visible in WPA
and FSA photos of the 1930s. The same confidently painted S-curve serves in
many Snap Wyatt banners as shorthand for the curtains other painters render
more elaborately. You can often recognize a Snap Wyatt banner, too, by its
blue letters shadowed in green.
carnival world is a parody or cartoon of the commercial world: it is all hype,
selling at its extreme. The Alligator Boy is a man with a skin condition, the
Penguin boy an old man with unfortunate flipper like arms.
enduring view backstage was created in 1981 when the late humorist, performer
and author Spalding Gray visited a carnival with photographer Randal Levenson.
Together, they produced a rare record of the performers out of costume in
photographs and words. Their book, In Search of the Monkey Girl,
shows the real character behind the performer Popeye, for instance. (The book
is now rare; for images see
Meah was born in 1937 in Bristol, Connecticut, where his father was a
newspaper cartoonist. He likes to say he grew up in a black-and-white
household, dominated by the pen-and-ink drawing of his father’s. Meah took up
drawing early in childhood, but the wider world of color appealed to him:
bright railroad cars, colorful circus wagons. At 14 he visited his first
carnival. He soon met a man called “The Human Cannonball,” Hugo Zachinni, who
was then working for the King Brothers Circus. Zachinni was also a renowned
painter of sideshow banners when he wasn’t flying out of a cannon for
audiences. After his first circus season, Meah was hooked.
sketching carnival goers to performing, Meah gradually became part of the
carnival life. He began working as a clown; later he learned fire eating and
sword swallowing. He went to Rhode Island School of Design for a year, but
came back. In 1956 he worked a carnival tour with the Ross Manning Company,
whose sideshow was run by Leola—also known as “Leo/Leola, Half Man Half
Woman,” or Homer Tracy, a female impersonator. As Meah tells it, Leola hired
him first to touch up older banners, then sketch new ones. His career was
drawn to the mother vein of banner painting that came out of Coney Island. He
read about Danny Cassela in an article in the New York Herald Tribune,
headlined, “He Glamorizes the Freaks at Coney.” Cassela came from the
tradition of Millard and Bulsterbaum, the original firm of local banner
painters, handling not just Coney Island shows and traveling carnivals but
Nathan’s Famous hot dog signage.
There was work for youngsters like Meah because the banners wore out quickly
with the constant movement of the carnival. They were never considered art or
even craft in themselves. Banners were regarded as disposable, Meah says. “It
was like the
for potato chips: ‘eat ’em up, we’ll make more.” They were treated roughly,
frequently discarded, used as impromptu tarps and replaced. But then the
talent of the carnival performers was handled roughly, too.
the Smithsonian mounted a show of carnival banners, and Life magazine did a
story on them. This caught the eye of the Chicago dealer Carl Hammer, whose
gallery also specialized in outsider artist, tattoo “flash” or designs, and
other non-mainstream artists. A few years later, he contacted Meah and visited
him in Florida.
Hammer around town of Gibsonton, where carnival people at the time retired.
“It was sort of depressing,” Hammer says, “seeing all these sad side show
performers in their little houses.” The banners were still thought of as
disposables. Meah recalls, “When Carl came down here we had just burned about
50 old banners. When I told him, I thought he would have a heart attack.”
found that few buyers shared his enthusiasm for the banners. He began to
present them as folk art, like weather vanes, tavern signs or game boards,
items popular among folk art collectors. Hammer also sold tattoo flash and the
work of outsider artists.
amazed, he says, when Hammer marketed the banners as folk or outsider art. At
first, he resented that. It suggested some guy scrawling on a shovel in
Arkansas. Today he accepts what Hammer was doing. “Before Carl, nobody was
collecting them so I came to terms with it,” says Meah.
problem with the “folk” label, of course, is that it risks obscuring the
differences among individual artists or craftspeople. Banner painters differ
greatly to one who knows the field. Meah says he admires two very different
predecessors: Snap Wyatt and Fred Johnson.
Johnson had no background of actual sideshows, Meah says. “He worked in a big
loft in Chicago. He had his own vision of it all. It was like The World
According to Garp—he painted the world according to Fred Johnson.”
admired the way Johnson expanded on the stock situations. “For instance,” Meah
says, “one perennial (act) is a woman in the electric chair. She gives the
illusion that electricity is passing through her body. It radiates from her
fingertips and toes. Usually the premise was some fanciful tale that she been
hit by lightning or whatever. It’s done with a Tesla coil to surround a
woman’s body with electricity, implying she can somehow endure it, or that she
is sitting in an electric chair like a doomed criminal.
probably painted 50 those of those. In one he showed the woman smiling,
sitting in the electric chair in a penal institution somewhere, with stone
walls. Over in the corner would be the executioner dressed, for some reason,
in a fancy uniform with epaulets and braids. He looked like the doorman at the
Ritz Carlton. And Fred Johnson, god bless him, would put in curtains and
jungle scenery or French curtains. What the hell are the flowers doing there?”
became influenced by a very different sort of painter: Boris Vallejo, the king
of the paperback dramatic cover painting. Meah admired the way Vallejo rang
changes on clichés and conventions.
the primary factor killing off the sideshow is sensitivity about the
exploitation of people inside the tents. Some of the exhibits inside the tents
of the sideshow were odd samples in jars, others were people with odd
features. Gawking at the malformed and misshapen is downright primitive. But
Meah argues that we have to see the history of the sideshow in the context of
its time. “Many of these were so-called ‘attic children’ in those days.
Families hid them away because they were ashamed. The usual scenario was that
when the circus came to town, they met other people and peculiarities and
found kinship and support. For the first time, they were part of a community
of other people like them.
has written a book about the carnival, completed a novel and is working on
another book. He has a website and even a downloadable font. He served as
consultant for Carnivale, the short-lived HBO series about a
supernaturally charged traveling carnival from the Depression. In fact, he
seems to have followed all the advice consultants give people whose industries
have vanished: build on your strengths, adapt to the new era.
“A lot of
people in our computerized era don’t know that there are real people who
actually do this stuff,” he says of banner painting. But for how much longer?