Category Archives: ringling residency

During the fall of 2011, I have been fortunate to reside in the Ringling Museum Cottage on Sarasota Bay, Florida. Here I spent time seeing life in a place I could never before imagine – the people here are still magical and the rich histories of Mable and John Ringling, Circus Women, and the arts are all vibrant. I am sure my work as an artist is being transformed and will continue to be inspired by this incredible experience from here on.

The value of things – inspired by the Ringling Museum

While on residency at the Ringling Museum, I have unexpectedly come upon a form of decorative arts I never considered having much value.  That is  – painted furniture and decoupage .  As I worked my way through the collections in Ca d’Zan, I realized the need to access multicolored motifs in my work – a place to imprint colorful fem-eccentric imagery.  Up until now most color is in the printed gender portrait and the dyed fabric, however the decorative imagery is fairly monochrome.  Decoupage allows me to transfer digital images to print and apply them to the surface of furniture.

Fabric dying and printing, embroidery and lace, decoupage – the histories behind these art forms is fascinating and always takes me to wonderful stories of women and woman’s work.  Decoupage combined with decorative painting and gilding was a way to create affordable and do it yourself lacquered furniture decorated with figurative and floral motifs (an inexpensive form of Japanning).  Decoupage has been a popular hobby for women throughout the ages.  Printed images glued to a surface appear to be a more colloquial version of baroque and rococo painted furniture.   I can’t decide if I am simply intrigued that I can now insert colorful imagery into my settings, or if I am inspired by something deeper.  I think both…

As I stroll the Ringling campus, read books written by female circus performers, spend time in Ca d’Zan, Mable’s gardens and looking at photographs both of Mable and the circus performers – I read about and observe to what ends John and Mable Ringling went to be respected amongst the top capitalists of their time – I become deeply aware of my need for beauty and aesthetic acceptance and question how my livelihood, art and person fit into the value of things.

I could really let it get me down – knowing, for example, that certain theories, materials, and subjects have more value in the world (of art) – or I could embrace what I value despite it all.  For example, here at Ringling, I value the voice of the woman. I am thinking about she, being the one who is normally gazed upon – turning this in on itself to she being the one who gazes. A woman can be self conscious when not being objectified, like the circus women, Josie and Zora, she reflects upon her own person, her status and values.  She provides strength from within, not condescension and judgment coming from an outsider’s point of view.  To me a much more interesting and powerful narrative emerges.

Mable Ringling held strong to her integrity. I am told how she provided for her sisters and everybody I meet and everything I read use kind words to describe her.  Yes she directed the design and operation of Ca d’Zan, a 1.5 million dollar Venetian Palace built in the 1920’s, but she was working against the odds – not being from an upper class family – still frowned upon today. While people tour the Ca they continue to condemn Mable for her working class origins.  She seemed to be free spirited and loved to surround herself with family spending much of her time in her gardens, with her animals, and out on the yacht.  She didn’t keep a journal and only once let a journalist interview her, so I can only guess by looking at family photo albums and various collected photos of Mable – who was she really?

I look at myself – despite my personal nature and livelihood some of my traits are seen as woman and some may be seen as mannish – like being a grounds keeper, gardener, laborer, designer, artist.  A type may come to mind when seeing me maneuver the large walk-behind Gravely mower over the bumpy three acre terrain of Stenton Museum grounds – a piece of equipment generally operated by male lawn keepers.  I love physical work – out in the yard sweating, digging, rearranging, carrying, trimming, keeping fit and getting dirty.  As a designer and artist I appreciate high craft and tend to be moved by more feminine spaces and ideas.  Here, I am drawn to Mable and her sister’s bedrooms, Mable’s sense of color, her green chairs in the breakfast room, the painted furniture, and the ormolu figurines of women, cherubs, and animals (monkeys in Mable’s room).  Her bathroom is filled with painted trompe l’oeil wall panels, doors, and chairs.  I am loving the arts seemingly more valued by women.

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.