Over the past few months I have been exchanging emails with an art conservator in Washington about a fascinating project she undertook a few years ago. Dawn Rogala spent two years traveling and living with every full-time, traveling, tented circus in the U.S. and documenting the experience. She traveled with:
Big Apple Circus
Carson & Barnes Circus
Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus
Culpepper & Merriweather Circus
Franzen Bros. Circus
Roberts Bros. Circus
Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus
Vidbel’s Olde Tyme Circus
Walker Bros. Circus
She took over 400 rolls of film, and dozens of transcribed interviews — “everyone from the owners to the exotic animal grooms,” she says.
“The image [above],” she says, “is the tent being set up at a 5-ring show that moves every day. You might be able to see one of the elephants that’s been pulling poles in the background.”
I had a chance to meet with her earlier this week, and to look through a selection of the images and to hear some of her memories. The photos double as art and as cultural record. One of the most gorgeous images, for example, depicts the colorful striped (and tattered) tent of the Franzen Bros. Circus. Not long after it was taken, Dawn tells me, the circus’s owner Wayne Franzen was fatally mauled by one of his own tigers in front of a group of 200 schoolchildren. The tiger was attracted to Franzen’s glittery new costume, which the tigers hadn’t been sufficiently acclimated to yet. Think of this anecdote the next time you’re bored at the circus.
It sounds like Dawn went for the full immersion experience. Two years is enough to make her “with it” I think; she sure doesn’t sound like a dilettante or an outsider when she talks about the experience. During those two years, she says she:
1) performed as a clown,
2) attempted the Spanish web act,
3) helped set up the tent and the lot electrical feed,
4) slept with [her] RV fenced into the tiger compound,
5) took an elephant for a walk,
6) worked the midway,
7) learned a lot about survival,
8) learned a lot about people,
9) learned a lot about art,
10) had romantic adventures,
11) got into dangerous situations, and
12) met [her] future husband.
The latter, whom I met this week as well, used to work at Big Apple Circus, and we realized that the three of us were all around that organization around the same time (I worked in the back office for three years in the mid 90s). We may well have said hi to each other before!
At any rate, says Rogala, “I highly recommend joining the circus; I think it should be like conscription… everyone should have to join for two years.”
She has edited all of the interviews she conducted, and culled the top 100 images, and is now seeking a publisher and /or a gallery owner who can help her share this important work with the public.
Any interested parties, please contact me through this web site and I will be happy to make an introduction.