A New Collective of Artists Brings Another Circus to Town
State of the Arts
Running away to join the circus is not quite the romantic fantasy it once was. With apologies to the kids in Vermont’s Circus Smirkus, most modern youth would probably rather win “American Idol” and get famous or invent a killer app and get rich. But the allure, for all ages, of big-top sights and sounds lives on even for those who just like to watch. Both the Shelburne and Fleming museums parlayed that excitement into popular circus-themed exhibits last year.
This summer, a gang of artists in Burlington has figured out how to “join” the circus without the running away part: form a collective and name it Church of Circus. Then find a public site in downtown Burlington and plan a monthlong show of visual and performance art. “Art for all” is its motto, and “increased visibility for Vermont-based artists” is its mission.
The ringleader in this project is Kat Clear, a metal sculptor who is no stranger to making public art — her work is visible around town in the form of artful bicycle racks, a “crown” for the Queen City in the mall, a 40-foot wall sculpture at the hospital and other installations. In January Clear won the Barbara Smail Award from Burlington City Arts, and she is using its bennies — a $1000 grant and access to BCA’s studios for a year — to create a new body of work. Its theme is, you guessed it, the circus. She got right to the task of designing and creating figures such as trapeze artists — aerial variations on her earlier “Whoopsie! Grrls” series — and animals such as the elephant pictured here. All, of course, in welded metal.
Though she’s having fun creating her pieces, Clear says that, this time, she didn’t want to do it alone. “For me the making of it is great, but the community around it is vital,” she explains. “I just started talking to other local artists whose work I like and respect, to see if they’re inspired by the circus. I started planting the seeds in February. Now we have a full-blown collective.”
The group’s 10 members embrace a variety of mediums, from painting to filmmaking to photography. At least one of the artists, Toni-Lee Sangastiano, is a natural fit: She’s long been painting sideshow banners based on historical versions, including some for the Shelburne Museum’s show last year. Fabric artist Wylie Sofia Garcia quickly warmed to the idea of making costumes; her husband, painter Clark Derbes, was less sure how his geometry-inspired work would fit, but is thinking “some kind of grifter theme,” he says.
“I kind of took on too many projects this summer, but when Kat came to me and Clark, I said, ‘You’re crazy — yes, let’s do this,’” recalls Garcia. “The seedy underbelly of the circus is what appeals to me; this illusion that you’re going to see something … a little bit sexy.”
She began researching burlesque costumes — “sequins, lace, material that I’m already attracted to” — and came up with the name of Thimbelina for her outfit’s character. Think Hans Christian Andersen heroine meets suggestive performance artist. “It’s a beautiful illusion,” Garcia decides. “I’m going to keep adding more and more clothes but keep looking more undressed.”
Other Church of Circus members are still working out their contributions to the show that will take place in the former quarters of Outdoor Gear Exchange, aptly during BCA’s Festival of Fools in August. All like the idea of creating more space for art, and presenting it to the public in an accessible way. “We started talking about how we can get our work into the world by happenstance,” Clear says, “so you’re experiencing art before you know it. Take away the scary part.”
Not everyone feels “qualified” to walk into a gallery and look at or judge artwork, she notes. “What we’re looking to do is create a space, sort of a gallery in an empty retail space … a ‘pop-up’ like is happening all over the country.” (See Megan James’ article about Winooski’s Pop-Up Gallery District, debuting this week.) Clear suggests further that people don’t know how to “quantify” what artists do, and she rejects “the notion that artists are just floating around and can’t make events happen, or make a living.”
What better way to deflect public expectations than to create a circus-slash-art installation in a storefront that once sold quite down-to-earth gear? The circus, Clear says, “is just the catchall for our mission.”
Not that preparing for it hasn’t brought its own rewards. “Kat and I have been doing all this research into circuses, and there’s always this feeling of impending disaster,” observes Garcia. “But it all works out in the end.”