Step right up to see circus freaks - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Step right up to see circus freaks

Burlington, Vermont - July 26, 2010

For Toni-Lee Sangastiano, circuses and amusement parks are more than just fun, they're work. "People are fascinated with the beautiful and the grotesque, all at the same time," Sangastiano says.

The full-time Champlain College arts professor has been painting scenes of carnival life since she was an art student near iconic Coney Island. "Things just kind of snowballed from there," she remembers.

That independent project turned into nearly 15 years of research and painting. Buyers around the country now commission her for projects. Circus memorabilia is a popular collectible. The entertainment form "brings everyone together," she says.

Some of the artist's banners are now hanging at the entrance to the circus building at the Shelburne Museum. Inspired by vintage designs, they remind visitors of a time when truth in advertising wasn't a concern of circuses. "Gator Girl," for example, likely suffered from severe eczema or another skin disorder.

Curator Kory Rogers says, "There was a little bit of trickery involved, and I think the audience knew that and enjoyed it."

Rogers finds many people now sympathize with the old-time "circus freaks" as they were known, fearing they were exploited or laughed at. But most, he says, were eager for the jobs: "They made very good livings doing this."

For the Shelburne Museum banners, the artist used paint and other materials designed to hold up to the weather. They'll be hanging at the museum until late October. Click here for more information on the Shelburne Museum.

Toni-Lee Sangastiano has even become close friends with several sideshow performers. She wants her images to show women as strong and proud, no matter how they may look. She also wants her paintings to preserve sometimes-crumbling honky-tonk landmarks.

"I really like how it's a huge melting pot of every particular nationality," Sangastiano says of this form of entertainment. "Everyone's going to the amusement park!"

This artist has a colorful way of looking at an already vibrant part of American life. Click here to visit the artist's website.

Jack Thurston - WCAX News

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