It was going to be amazing, colorful and fun.
For a year, Bloomington gallery owner and artist Jan Brandt was planning a circus-themed art exhibition featuring works created specifically for the show from local artists. And the capper was going to be an over-the-top, under the big top opening night party.
“I had ordered 75 boxes of Cracker Jack,” Brandt admitted ruefully. “I was going to have a cotton candy- making machine, which now would be so inappropriate with passing along germs. I had been in contact with someone who had worked with Gamma Phi Circus, so we were hoping to have some performers during the opening. I had banners and all kinds of things.”
“It seemed that if you’re going to have a circus show, you’re going to have to put on a real spectacle,” she said, laughing.
Then, like so many other arts organizations around the country, the Brandt Gallery had to lock its doors against the pandemic. Brandt was very disappointed. And she was stuck with 75 boxes of Cracker Jack. But the old show biz axiom of "the show must go on" meant the exhibition, “Big Top,” wouldn’t fold. Brandt decided to carry on virtually, posting the works online.
The circus has always held a fascination for Brandt.
“I’ve always been interested in it. There are many layers that are attractive to me,” she said. “The idea of these people living in a community and wondering how does that work as they travel from town to town. And the costuming and the fabrics, the way that patterns and colors are put together for circus costumes and tents that we don’t see every day. And those really appeal to me.”
Brandt also is keen on the circus history of Bloomington-Normal. For decades, the Twin Cities served as the winter home for many circus performers, especially trapeze artists such as The Flying Wards.
“You drive along Emerson Street and go, 'Oh, that used to be the barn where the Flying Wards used to practice.' I would try to imagine what that was like. And then, of course, there’s Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University. That’s just another great touchstone of history and the circus. There are just so many layers,” noted Brandt.
“It gives you everything. It gives you joy, thrills, it’s a little scary sometimes. And there’s romance.”
Brandt invited a number of her artist friends to participate in “Big Top.”
“A big part of it was my interest in the quality of their artwork. I’d never seen that they had done circus items, but I wanted to see what they did with it. And it was this idea of having this community come together as artists and to see what would happen if I said, 'Hey, do you want to run away to the circus with me?’” Brandt laughed.
The works included in “Big Top” cover a wide range of themes and styles. Brandt chose to create works depicting female clowns.
“I became interested in this idea of funny girls, girls as clowns because usually it’s a male dominated profession.”
Artist Danell Dvorak focused on the suggestion of movement in her works, said Brandt. “She seemed to be very taken with the idea of the movement and the physique of the animals and the performers. You can just imagine the motion of the acts, whether it be an aerialist or a bare-back rider. The animals really come through, along with the skill and the bravery of the people involved.”
“David Dow made a beautiful mask with multi-colored beads. It’s just gorgeous,” Brandt enthused. “I’m so glad he offered to make a piece.”
Artist Jim Neeley also is also included in “Big Top.” Brandt noted that Neeley utilized some untraditional materials in his work: Bounty paper towels.
“It’s interesting what people are going to,” Brandt said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Well, I’ll make something and this is what I have on hand.’ They’re very beautiful and you wouldn’t even think that they were more low-key materials. They still come off as very finished and beautiful.”
Other artists in “Big Top” include Jeannie Breitweiser, Sarah Foote, Haley Gray, Maggie Morton, and Britten Traughber. All the works have been assembled into a music-filled video that was produced by Neeley and posted to YouTube. But that almost didn’t happen.
When the shelter-in-place order came down from the governor, Brandt began to question the appropriateness of a circus-themed art show. Clearly, crowds wouldn’t be able to gather at the gallery to view the show, and Brandt was on the verge of giving up on the whole idea. Entropy began to creep up on her.
“I didn’t know what to do," she said. "I made so much artwork and I had all these other people make artwork – what do I do? Is it appropriate to show artwork about the circus and try to get people happy as a diversion? What’s happening is very serious. I was going through so many emotions.”
“I have several autoimmune conditions. I’m one of those people who has underlying conditions and I have many loved ones who also do. I’m scared about it. It was a real struggle to figure out the right way to forge on. So, it wasn’t done lightly. It was something that I really struggled with.”
Then, Neeley spoke up.
“He said art and community are more important now than ever. And what better than to have your gallery bring the circus to town.
I’m very thankful to him for bringing that up to me, and it’s okay to try and figure out what the new normal is.”
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.