Cirque de Synchronicity

Posted by on Apr 27, 2008 in Children's Book Illustration, Illustration, Maine College of Art | 0 comments

It’s that time of year again: mud season in Maine and the circus is in town. In memory of my dad, William Hogan, a Shriner, I take my daughter and friends to the annual Kora Shrine Circus from Lewiston, Maine. It’s the cheapest trick in town and remains entertaining after 7 years in a row. There’s something nostalgic for me, wandering amongst the men in their burgundy blazers and fez, ever accomodating. I know I went to circuses as a kid, but not one of them stands out. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them as an adult. I went to an early Cirque de Soleil show in San Francisco 20 years ago, back before it became unaffordable. I also tried the Pickle Family Circus there, part vaudeville, part acrobatic. But the Shriner Circus still feels home-townish, the way circuses began.

I even managed to turn a field trip to the circus into, yep, an illustration assignment! Why not? For three years, my Illustration 2 class of MECA sophomores would walk across the street to the Portland Civic Center, with sketchbooks under their arms and cellphone cameras ready to document all the glory of the ring. Circus themes have been well mined in all genres of art. I bring in Picasso, Chagall, books on old circus posters,and picture books galore. My students always seem to dig up lots of twisted circus freak stuff online. Besides getting reference firsthand at the Shriner’s event, students develop a final illustration for a circus poster. It’s a grand, splashy way to end the semester.

A 2006 piece by Tim Brewster shares some of the classic simplicity of this year’s program, a bargain at $1 and full of local ads for businesses like the True Value in Mechanic Falls and Moon Recoveries (Towing and Recovery) in Auburn. Not a website among them.

Here’s another favorite student poster, by Lyndsey Camelio, who went on to major in Graphic Design, class of ’07.

It’s the primary colors, the polka dots (I have a weakness for them; have you noticed?), and the big shoes! Just the kind of thing clowns like Bubba wear….who so kindly signed Daisy’s Shriner program this year.

Last year, in a stroke of synchronicity, my favorite publisher, Charlesbridge, called me to illustrate a book jacket for Secrets of the Cirque Medrano, about Brigitte, a 16 year-old girl from Warsaw, orphaned and sent to Paris to work in her aunt’s cafe. It’s a new world for a confused girl, who longs for the freedom to go see the saltimbanques performing nearby. This time I worked with art director, Diane Early, and sank my teeth into research on Picasso’s period of painting circus performers. Quelle joyeux! Picasso played a part in the book, as did a capuchin monkey named Toulouse.

In typical fashion, I gathered tons of material before sketching. So many ideas, so little time! I sent these sketches:

I saw this one being inside the tent, with a glimpse of the alleys of Montmarte outside.

Had to imply the secrets part here. I’m lousy with secrets. Don’t tell me anything.

I tried to get Picasso onto the cover in this one, working from a book of photos by Jean Cocteau.

This one was my favorite, actually redrawn from a MECA poster sketch I did in my class. Art school resembles a circus more than you can ever know.

So, what do you think they picked? Got a favorite?

I was in Paris once, during my senior year at RISD, and got pickpocketed on the train in Montmartre. C’est la vie.
If by chance you should miss Paris, check out Paris Daily Photo. Bonjour, Eric! You are the random blog I discovered and fell in love with when I signed on with Blogger.

Done deciding? They picked #6, and I did a few more sketches to get Paco in the foreground, and the author’s name onto a sign in the manner of Lautrec.

I kinda got really into Paco, the young saltimbanque that Brigitte has a thing for.
I LOVE the whole harlequin/ Pierrot thang. During that stay in Paris, I lost my passport. Well, maybe…I realized it was gone when it was time to debark the train from Amsterdam. That teller who changed money for me…YOU KEPT IT. My travel mate and I, lacking a way to get more money, found ourselves calling my mother’s friend-from-churches-daughter, you know, that phone number pushed on you by an anxious parent at the airport. We slept in their living room on cots, and I fell asleep pondering a reproduction on the wall by Watteau, of guess who? Pierrot.

So here is a crop of my final pastel. Toulouse didn’t fit onto the cover, but waits for you in the doorway on the back flap.

And here is the cover:

This book is out NOW. Happy reading!

To prove that life is truly a big fat polka dot, working in circles of connections, I received a calendar last week from my friend from kindergarten, Maureen Clark, of Clark’s Trained Bears fame. I consulted her last year to find out what breed of monkey would be trained, like the one in Secrets of the Cirque Medrano. She knows all about trainers and circus folk, having grown up with that breed of talent. Why, she raised cubs in her backyard. She let me hold one, providing a towel for buffer.

She sent along a gem production from none other than Graphique de France of a collection of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey vintage circus posters, which included this favorite:

Watching my childhood friend in the ring with enormous bears is something that brings an incredibly deep satisfaction.
If you want to read a fantastic book on this kind of animal bonding, check out The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough. The greatest female tiger trainer is brought to vivid, hair-raising life in this incredible novel.

I brought it along on our recent swing down to Boston, where we managed to take in our second circus in a single week.
The Big Apple Circus is not as old as the Shriner’s, but way more splashy and
fast-paced, not to mention expensive. It was well worth it; the costuming alone will spark a ton of sketching (to come) and the
gold-painted, slow-mo acrobats blew me away. The finale of tumblers and leaping girls had me short of breath.

Now I just have to wait for Circus Smirkus to come to Freeport this summer.
And start training the dog to juggle tennis balls…

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