After watching old Super8 reels of family visits to the county fair in the early '70s, Jennifer Davis developed a new fascination for circus and carnival imagery. While doing some research on the subject, she discovered that there were dozens of vintage carousels and carousel museums between Minnesota and the East Coast. So last summer, after becoming a recipient of the 2013 Next Step Fund Grant from the Minnesota Regional Arts Council/McKnight Foundation, Davis set out on an eight cities in eight days research trip to study, photograph, sketch, and paint antique carousel animals. She toured carnival museums, met with restoration experts, and immersed herself in carnival culture. What she returned with was content for her new solo show, "Joyride."
We spoke with Davis on her experiences delving into this colorful carnival culture, and how "Joyride" presents an unusually magical -- and often forgotten -- side of American creative history.
Jennifer Davis: Tricia Khutoretsky, who is now the curator/director of Public Functionary, emailed me expressing interest in my project after reading about it on the list of MRAC grantees. This was well before the gallery had opened or had even launched their Kickstarter campaign to fund the build-out. I had included the goal of having a solo exhibition to culminate this project, and had put some feelers out to look for a space, but had not yet turned up anything. I met with Tricia to discuss our upcoming plans, and quickly realized that her goals and ambitions were in line with my own. I could see that her new gallery was going to be something really special. It was a lucky break for me.
Your work is rarely series based. So, what is it about the vintage carousel imagery that made you want to go into deeper exploration, creating an entire body of work on the subject?
I have done some series work before, such as my hand-painted paper shooting targets, but even then it was only the targets that tied everything together. The imagery itself was completely random.
My usual mode of working is to just start painting and see what bubbles up. Advance planning has never been part of my method. It was a coincidence that I had seen some old family Super 8 reels depicting scenes from a county fair right around the time I was daydreaming about making a proposal for a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council/McKnight Foundation Next Step grant. I discovered that there are dozens of carousels built in the early 1900s along the East Coast, so I made a proposal to visit them on a road trip.
Tell me more about your process of research and planning. After you got the funding, how did you go on from there?
Part of the grant proposal process included providing a detailed itinerary and budget for what I wanted to accomplish. So, much of the planning was done before I even submitted my proposal. The National Carousel Association, its website, and members were exceptionally helpful to me along the way. Their generosity and expertise helped me figure out which carousels I wanted to visit. I was particularly smitten with the vintage hand-carved wooden and metal varieties.
The most excruciating part of the planning was to figure out a road-trip route where I could hit as many of them as possible within a short amount of time. Then I calculated a detailed budget for the trip, factoring in accommodations, tolls and ferries, admissions, incidentals -- you name it. During my trip, I documented each of the carousels I visited with sketches, notes, videos, and gazillions of photos, and wrote about each day on a blog, merrygoroundabout.blogspot.com. It was my aim to create my own reference photos and immerse myself in the full, crazy sensory experience rather than just look at books and Google images as inspiration for my paintings.
In terms of the art making process, you mentioned doing some preliminary sketches, and that the final products themselves are quite large. Talk about the experience of actually making the work.
I am really not much of a planner or a sketcher -- I had never even really used a sketchbook -- but with this shift in scale I had to rely more on my limited drafting abilities. On my trip, I made some rough sketches about what I wanted to paint, and took photos for reference. When I got home, I made more detailed drawings to play around with composition. I hired a builder to make 10 four-by-four-foot panels, and I started them off by layering lots of colors, sanding into them, and layering some more.
When I was satisfied with the under-painting, I used a projector to enlarge my best drawings onto the panels. From there, it was all experimentation. I had never painted so large, and that was a whole new beast for me. [It was] mentally and physically painful at first. Even my tools were inadequate, as my normal brushes are so small.
Eventually, I found my groove, and ended up painting over two of the works that I had spent weeks on and had previously considered "finished." I did retain some of the tiny, detailed mark-making that I love so much, but these paintings ended up looking quite different than my usual, smaller works. They are less soft and more focused on rich, bold patterns and colors -- like the carousel animals themselves. They are obviously inspired by vintage carousel animals and designs, but they definitely took on a life of their own.
Was there any particular piece or image that really evoked intense thoughts or emotions?
There were so many! Vintage carousel animals have various specific and repeated forms, depending on the company that made them. Many of them look wild, crazed, or even dead. For example, carousel cats made by the Dentzel Carousel Company bare their claws and teeth, and are in the process of devouring a fish. One of the big paintings in my show is based on photos I took of a hand-carved, retired, wooden carousel lion by Looff Carousel Company at the American Art & Carousel Gallery in Sandwich, Massachusetts. His expression is just too perfect; he is caught mid-roar, but his eyes seem to display a softer side.
I also painted a bizarre goat, carved before 1920, from a boardwalk carousel in Ocean City, Maryland with his tongue hanging out. He definitely proved it is possible to look elegant and dead at the same time.
I think it is that combination of colorful, exuberant joy and strange, dark surrealism that draws me to this vintage imagery. If you were to visit a modern, fiberglass carousel, you would only see sweet, smiley, cartoony animals.
What are the stories behind some of these bizarre creatures? Some of them are magical and friendly, while others are ferocious and dead. Does that juxtaposition have to do with the time in which they were made?
Yes, I think so. The weird, vintage ones are far more magical to me. They seem more modeled after real animals. I visited America's oldest carousel still in operation: an 1883 "Flying Horses" Dentzel machine, where the horses are swinging from above instead of mounted on poles, in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The horses there were more "crude," and had the craziest long, real, horse-hair manes and tails. They looked like old geezer punk-rockers and hippies. Something like that would never be built today -- it's not safe enough, too scary, unsanitary. It used to be that people of all ages rode them frequently, but now it is mostly just kids -- and me. It seems to me that modern carousel animals have been corporatized and sugarcoated to more closely match modern cartoons and toys.
How many of these vintage carousels are there in America? Are they all still functioning? Why are they predominantly on the East Coast?
There are many. Dozens upon dozens. You can visit carousels.org to see a map. Some are retired or in storage, but most of them are functioning. I was really shocked to see this map, as I think they really are an under-appreciated piece of American history. I think when people see these carousels in parks and at fairs, they do not realize just how old they are -- I know I didn't.
On my visits, I usually found little indication about the history. There was maybe a little plaque, place marker, or some photos, which are easy to miss amid all the crazy lights and blasting pipe organ music. But when I asked the workers, who were often volunteers and fanatics, they were more than happy to tell me everything they knew.
The carousels originally started popping up in the U.S. around the companies that built them. Charles Looff built the first hand-carved carousel at Coney Island in 1876. Members of the Dentzel Carousel Company, originally in Germany, came to Pennsylvania in the 1850s, and moved to California in the '20s. A lot of carousels were disassembled, sold, and moved around and shipped in from Europe, too. We have a classic, 1914, all wood, carved carousel right here in Minnesota at Como Park.
How is this project a next step for your career? What do hope the next step will be?
This project represented a whole bunch of next steps or firsts for me. Not only was this my first grant award, but also the whole thing motivated me to try a bunch of new things. It was the first time in my 15-plus years of painting that I ever felt compelled to get out of my studio to research and create a series of works based on any one theme. The larger-than-life subject matter also inspired me to create my largest body of works to date -- thematically, but also physically.
I'm very happy with how everything turned out, and all of those things represent forward momentum for me personally. I'm not exactly sure what my next next steps are, as I am still focusing on this exhibition and will need to take a breather, but hopefully I will be brave about trying new things in the future. This spring, I start working with Minneapolis choreographer Chris Schlichting on a massive new project that is surely out of my comfort zone.
IF YOU GO:
"Jennifer Davis: Joyride"
1400 12th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
There will be an opening reception from 7 p.m. to midnight Saturday, March 22; and an artist's talk at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 29.