What you see: Painters of the Peculiar: A Guide to Sideshow Banner Artists & Their Respective Work, by Michael Papa and Johnny Meah. $24.99. *
Does it fit in my purse? I guess it could if I rolled it up, but I wouldn’t want to do that to it.
Cut to the chase. Should I buy this book? If you’re into sideshow banner art, yes. I am, and I loved it.
Painters of the Peculiar is review-proof in that, as far as I can tell, it’s the first book of its kind. Others have presented sideshow banners as art, but this appears to be alone in attempting to identify as many banner painters by name as possible, along with biographical information and images of their work, whenever it could be found.
The book also assumes you know why you’re holding it in your hands. It doesn’t kick off with a Sideshow 101 tutorial. It starts by breaking down the layout and features of a sideshow banner in detail and discusses each artist’s work through that lens.
Painters of the Peculiar performs a valuable service by doing its damndest to expand knowledge of American sideshow banners and those who painted them. Every fact gathered in its pages was rescued from an obscurity that almost consumed it.
Many objects have made the slow transformation from tool to art–weathervanes, figureheads, signs that hung outside shops. Sideshow banners are among the few that transitioned during the 20th century, when at least some alert and passionate folks could make a stab at documenting the shift.
As the book notes, more than 100 different sideshow companies once trekked across America. Now there are none. If you want to see a live sideshow, you need to make a pilgrimage to Coney Island USA in Coney Island, New York.
It’s telling that those who actually made sideshow banners never thought of themselves as artists-with-a-capital-A and would be startled to see their road-worn original images of sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, and fat ladies sell for four- and five-figure sums. Snap Wyatt, one of the greats, prided himself on his ability to finish a banner a day. Fine artists rarely boast of their speed, even if they are feverishly cranking out works on deadline to fill a gallery or an art fair booth.
I say the banner painters “would be startled” as most of them didn’t live to see the change. Johnny Meah, the rare painter who has, co-authored Painters of the Peculiar, contributes its cover art, and tells tales of his mid-century working life, both on the road and from his winter base in Florida. These stories alone justify getting the book.
Add the painter identifications, the field guides, and the black-and-white period images of banners on display, and you have a real winner.
Worth buying new, at full price.
How to buy Painters of the Peculiar: Co-author Michael Papa sells it directly through a dedicated website.
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Image is courtesy of Michael Papa.
* I received Painters of the Peculiar as a review copy, but it covers a topic I like and actively seek out. I’ve interviewed Johnny Meah before. I haven’t interviewed Michael Papa, but I did interview his father, John, for a story for Robb Report Collectionthat is not online. Michael Papa also deals in original sideshow banners.