Category Archives: modern iconography

Historic Female Circus Performers at Ringling and beyond

Historically, female circus performers are some of the most misunderstood  women.  I’m not saying THE most misunderstood, but they are up there on the scales of it all.  I was telling my Mom about some of the books I have been reading here at Ringling: Sawdust and Solitude by Lucia Zora and The Circus Lady by Josephine DeMott Robinson.  Her first comment was this:  “When I was young [she grew up in a small town near Lake Ontario], we always thought circus women were promiscuous because men and women all lived and traveled together and therefore there must be a lot of sex.”  The truth is that rules of conduct for circus women were extremely strict in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I would imagine similar rules were reinforced in the 1940’s when my Mom was young.

So my reading has taken me into the lives of two incredible women: Zora and Josie – both were the first women to perform daring acts with animals and they both retired early, took on new lifestyles and wrote about their experiences.  Josie tried and tried to “fit in” with normal society women and Zora became a homesteader/rancher in the Colorado mountains.  If you get a chance, read the books – you may be able to find them in the library.

The following photographs are from the Frederick W. Glasier Collection, courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Circus Museum. I call them Glasier’s women.  Glasier was famous for capturing the circus performers personal nature while performing and behind the scenes.  He also took pride in showing strength and pride in his subjects often contrary to popular societal norms and perceptions.

Zora and Josie – famous circus women of the early 20th Century

Here are a couple quotes that really begin to form my opinion about the era and how (circus) women were perceived:

Zora and her husband, Fred, protect their cattle grazing land from the sheepmen who were notoriously impossible to keep from one’s land. The book describes the history of all out war between the sheep and cattle ranchers. The implication is that Zora was even more infamously dangerous than them.  It also seems that word got out and no more sheepmen attempted to graze their flock on Zora’s land again:

“I dressed as hurriedly as possible, then, running forth to the corral, threw a halter upon my saddle horse and mounted him bareback; there was no time to be lost. If I could only reach there before actual conflict! To that end, I took a short cut of precipitous grades through dense brush which lashed my face and scraped my knees as the horse hurried with none too much care along the twisting trail, at last to come into the open and see before me the sheep camp, still undisturbed.
”Please!” I begged of the flockmaster.  “Won’t you go?  My husband’s coming armed, and he means it.”

“Does he?” sneered the other man.  “Well, we’re armed too.”

It aroused every fighting instinct within me.  The enmity between sheep owner and cattle owner is a primal one.  My jaws set — and I suppose my features must have given good indication of the resentment within me.
”Well,” I answered, “I’ve tried to plead with you — simply because I don’t want to see you killed.  You know,” and I put emphasis into the sentence, “it isn’t murder in this country to shoot a rat of a sheepman!”

He looked at me queerly.  Suddenly his eyes widened.
”You’re that lion-tamin’ woman, ain’t you? he asked.  I merely answered with a not.

An instant later Fred came riding out of the brush, his right hand moving toward his holster.
”Well,” he asked.

“Goin’ right out, Brother,” said the flockmaster.  “Goin’ right out — an’ I don’t want you to think that this here is my fault.  I just got them there boundary lines mixed up, that’s all.  Never meant to trespass on your land; never meant it at all.”

Josie DeMott Robinson experienced more exhaustion and her body was more fraught with pain when she tried to keep her waist corseted to 18″, that she ever was in her rigorous circus training as an athlete and horse riding acrobat.  Josie has decided to learn to ride a bicycle in order to get back into shape. She describes how a local minister tries to inhibit her from riding a bicycle:

So I took up bicycle riding. This does not sound like a very revolutionary thing to say nowadays, when our girls rush about the land in high-powered cars or do fancy dancing in a piece of gauze and a pair of ballet slippers.  The bicycle was at this time just coming into vogue, but the women were not numerous riders as yet.  I was a real pioneer.  And I wore a real sport suit of the day — a jacket with huge sleeves and a divided skirt of some brevity.

When I had manged to learn the thing well enough to keep out of the ruts and avoid boulders instead of making straight for them, I decided to ride a few blocks down our street, around the church at the corner and so back home.  There was a good sidewalk there, and I knew most of the people living on those blocks, and hoped that, by showing them a little skilful riding I might induce them to take it up too, and perhaps later we could form a club.  So in my new suit and cap forth I sallied.  As I rounded the church corner I met the minister coming out, and since he was the one who often attended our Home Mission meeting, I greeted him cordially, hopped off my wheel, and talked to him with my best manners.

I called his attention to the make of my wheel, showed him where its construction was better than others, mounted and dismounted to show him how easy it was to become proficient in a short time, and then rode along slowly with him, since he was evidently going in my direction.  We parted at our gateway, and I finished my ride by circling our drives.

Later the minister called me up and asked if he might call and see me for a few minutes.  I thought perhaps he had come to ask the name of my wheel with a view to buying one for his wife, but not so.  He asked me if I did not consider it a little unbecoming to ride a wheel.  I was taken aback,  but decided he was a nice gray-haired, old-fashioned thing, so I explained the benefit I derived from the exercise, and he listened in silence.  I thought I had converted him, but as soon as I was through explaining, he rose to go.

“Of course, my dear Mrs. Robinson,” he said, “if you will insist on this I cannot prevent you, but will you be good enough to take some other street and not ride past the church?  It has a bad enough effect on the young people anywhere, but seeing it go past a church is a corrupting thing for them and all of us.”

He left me trusting I would think it over. And I did, but not in the way he meant.

The following excerpts are from The Circus Lady by Josephine DeMott Robinson and Sawdust and Solitude by Lucia Zora.

first interior photo as canvas for installation

Beauty Revisted at CFEVA

Scene from Country Home is inspired by my desire to bring authentic places into my work.  Up until now, I have been using images from the Gender Portraiture Project, while I imagine the places and settings where the people can be.  This base image is taken from Wyck Historic House Museum in the Germantown Historic district of Philadelphia.  I am experimenting with combining photographic images taken by me from real places with portraits and found images.  I find images from online copyright free books and journals and by photographing artifacts in my environment.

You can visit the Gallery at Center for Emerging Visual Artists, 237 S. 18th Street, The Barclay, 3rd Floor, Philadelphia, PA – now through August 19th, 2011 to see this work in the flesh!

Not Shangri La

After two years, I finally mounted and exhibited this piece.  I call it a tapestry because I appropriate the visual format of the Constantine Tapestry, however I have been told not to call it tapestry as it is printed, not woven.  So it is my un-tapestry.  This was particularly difficult to print – the first phase I laid down the background color then printed 10 screens, some multiple times.

Aside from this challenging technique, I am interested in exploring the concept of the Exotic.  In my definition of exotic, I look at stigmatization and acceptance as bi-polar opposites.  I have found that in textile design and decorative objects, often what is accepted into the decorative motif is not always accepted in high society.  This piece is not only influenced by its namesake – from the film Lost Horizon, but also by a textile from the collection of Stenton Museum a textile using Chinese peasants, set in bucolic scenes, as motifs.   I made an off the cuff comment that the curator had not thought of.  That is: “Isn’t it strange that the social elite will decorate their home with people they would never have at their dinner table?”

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Controversy

Please take action!!

I recently received an email forwarded from Jennifer Sichel, the research assistant for Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (October 30 through February 13, 2011), described as follows:

“…the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. “Hide/Seek” considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”

The email declares:

“Dear friends,

As many of you know, I spent several years in DC putting together a show at the National Portrait Gallery called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The show casts the history of American art through a queer lens, challenging our assumptions about what/how art means.
The show is not a reductive look at “gay” art but rather a look at how artists navigate around a complex set of codes that govern sexual expression, how they circumvent and/or use these codes to express their own silenced desires, how they’ve dealt with love and loss when AIDS ravaged the community, and how (more recently) artists complicate society’s imperative to identify as “gay/lesbian.”
The show is under serious attack from the right.  They demanded that a video by David Wojnarowicz be removed, and the museum caved with an hour.  I am outraged — almost 20 years after his death, Wojnarowicz is still being silenced! And now there is a good chance the entire show will be pulled.
Please help me in rallying behind the show.  We need an army of support.
What can you do?
Email NPG’s director, Martin E. Sullivan expressing your support for the show.  His email address is:
Forward this email to everyone and anyone who might care.
Write your congressmen/women.
Spread the word on facebook, twitter, etc.
In solidarity,

EMMA’s Parlour

A place where material culture is re-examined and gender roles are fluid. Installation art by Laureen Griffin and Victorian style miniature theatre by Martina Plag and Leah Walton engage the spirit of nostalgia during a tumultuous time when anarchy, labor struggle, and womenʼs sexual liberation bear equal weight.

From the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2009 at University City Arts League. Funding made possible in part by a grant from the Puffin Foundation and a house party put on by our dear friend Mary Kalyna.

[nggallery id=25]

Phillyist 2009

Joyce’s PLAF Diary for Wednesday, September 16

Performance: Emma’s Parlour (Martina Plag/Laureen Griffin/Leah Walton)
Howard Zinn is most well known for his passionate political writing, not his plays. So when I heard he’d written one about Emma Goldman, the renowned anarchist—and that it was being performed at the Fringe—I was intrigued. In collaboration with artist Laureen Griffin, Martina Plag and Leah Walton have put a lush, sensual decoration in the peformance parlour. Using silk-screen printed chairs, old-time props, and a setup much like your grandmother’s living room (if your grandmother was a fierce feminist), the principles have created a visual feast. Griffin, creator of the Gender Portraiture Project, works with her subjects to explore issues of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, and the carefully curated portraits that adorn the walls are vibrant and arresting. They offer a thoughtful counterpoint to the center stage puppet theatre, which includes the smallest details on paper dolls and painted backdrops finely and exquisitely rendered.

During the play itself, Plag and Walton’s quirky, interpretive spin takes the audience on a curious romp, with a few surprises. Two pops of a cap gun had the audience jumping in their seats, and words literally unscroll from Emma’s mouth on occasion during her speeches. Symbolism abounds (a birdcage does double duty as a jail). The actors transition smoothly between their puppet manipulation and more traditional acting roles. Emma’s story is a powerful and timely one—she spoke about issues of love, war, patriotism, democracy, and freedom of speech while wrestling with the tension between pleasure and duty that comes with being an activist—and the visuals compelling, so it seems unfortunate that the play itself, for all its outward beauty and clever ideas, falls a little short of its grand vision. The script seems more of a historical recounting of Emma’s life, and we only receive flashing glimpses of the woman behind the rhetoric. A meandering second half only adds to the disconnect.

I found myself agreeing with Goldman’s thoughts that “there has to be a little beauty in the midst of struggle,” and in that regard, the play designers have conceptualized her ideas quite proudly. I just wish the play’s words had matched the visual power of their performance space.
Festival Rating: Go for the art, stay for the play.

by Joyce Homan

for original article go to Phillyist

Social and Moral Deviance

Things I am thinking about as I prepare my proposal for Eastern State Penitentiary

Standards are set and norm is created – anything outside the norm is deviance – downfall of Catholic control in general resulting from Darwinism, Positivism and the birth of Sociology create new categories of social hierarchy based on morality and male dominance within civilized society….ramblings on…

Positivism as religion satisfies the need to normalize through both science and mythology – comparing empirical knowledge with a higher world order understood through creationism – not necessarily Christian but the belief of the supernatural such as Comte’s declaration that “all phenomena [is] produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings”

This leads Lombroso to use Aryan physiological characteristics as a base model and Anglo/European civilization as basis for social and moral norms.

Criminals are sacrifices to the positivists as saints are to Christianity as a way to uphold belief – the if then state – atavistic characteristics proving the existence of the born criminal as underdeveloped (primitive) and therefor sub-human – also degeneration as the martyr is to Christianity?  just a thought…

Both atavistic and degenerative characteristics can be natal – however – atavism is often associated with racism and degeneration with disease (either physiological or mental, ie. alcoholism) and can be passed down as a birth defect. Degeneration – social in origin is gradually weakening and hereditary – criminal behavior caused by atavism and degeneration is therefor not created through choice and women fall into these categories of criminals as seen as sub-human.

One way to be more primitive is that a female has too many masculine characteristics as is proven that the more refined a culture – the more the women take on feminine characteristics of domesticity, beauty, modesty, and passivity –  and that civilized males look for these qualities in a mate – makes me think of plastic surgery

phrenology – correlation of sections of the skull to propensities of good and evil…

criminal anthropologists extended physical anomalies to the entire body