Arts and Culture

For Denver artist Penney Bidwell, life is a carnival

The story behind the group show Carnivalesque, on view at the Niza Knoll Gallery since September, isn't always bright and happy, as organizer and participant Penney Bidwell knows all too well. She comes from a family of carnies that goes back three generations on her father's side, and as the last living member of the carny line, is burdened -- yes, literally laden -- with family stories and memories that go all the way back to the 1930s and her great-grandmother, who was a bona fide tattooed lady. Before her grandmother died, she made sure Bidwell knew everything there was to know about the hardships and bitter secrets of carnival life, leaving her a trove of photographs and mementos of a storybook tale gone awry. "I'm the sole recipient of the photos," Bidwell says. "And because they were in show business, maybe they had more photos than the average family." While she felt a lot of ambivalence about sharing her heritage, she also felt a responsibility to keep its memory going.

Book artist Alicia Bailey of Abecedarian Gallery inspired her to embrace her family's past. Remembers Bidwell: "She told me, this is your story, your narrative.' Also, there seems to be a renewed interest in carny life, and I have an authentic point of view I can share.

"I sat with it for years, with mixed feelings. My grandmother hated it all, and I felt that burden in a way. It's like I'm carrying her pain, but it's also an important part of Americana worthy of preserving. So I came up with a grand plan. I commissioned someone to make this album. I felt it was too important a task for just any old book."

As she spreads out the amazing photos that are her inheritance, the stories begin to speak out loud.

She reveals a clipping from the Sunday Baltimore Sun, circa 1934, that portrays her great-grandmother, Viola Crawn, getting her famous tattoos. Perhaps she'd been a dancing girl originally, who saw the tattoos as an opportunity. "It was the Depression," Bidwell explains. "She might have needed the money." "Viola hated her name, and apparently changed it throughout her life. One of her names was Little Butterfly, because of the ring of butterflies tattooed on her chest." "I don't know his whole history, but I think my great grandfather came here from Germany. This is the only real picture of him I have. He was a barker." "I found a woman online who had danced with my mom. She'd posted all these pictures, I guess from the `60s or `70s, and I contacted her and made copies of them. My mother told me that it was really hard work being a dancing girl. Even when they were on break, they had to sell tickets or stand out in front advertising the show."

Bidwell's mother was a ballet dancer who'd even danced with Balanchine before she ran off to discover the world with the carnival. It was a different world entirely...

...she soon discovered, and one about which she remains conflicted. The circus will do that to you.

Her grandfather was a concessionaire and the carnival train master, who oversaw the loading and unloading of equipment. "He was quite a character -- he would carry wads of cash in his pockets, and he loved the carnival." The carnival, Bidwell adds, generally toured constantly for nine months of the year and wintered in Florida.

Bidwell says her art in the show is a conduit for her reconnection process with her family: "Most of my work comes from the subconscious. I take rough ideas, and they evolve as a culmination of experience. I've been thinking about belonging and not belonging -- the carnival took anybody in. And I think a lot about the pain my grandmother felt. After she died, I thought, 'I can't be the last person. I need to pass this on to my kids.'"

And it's a strong show all around, built up by a group of compatible and collaborating artists, including Dave Seiler, who made these posters that illustrate Bidwell's carny character busts, including one advertising the Seer, who wears a heart-shaped patch over her eye. "She sees with her heart," explains Bidwell -- and serves as a conduit for the artist's personal narrative and emotion. Carnivalesque remains on view through the end of October, but tomorrow night, the artists will be present for a Big Top reception that Bidwell hopes will channel a true carnival flavor. From 6 to 9 p.m., there will possibly be unicyclists and jugglers, music and a clown, along with vintage party favors by Sam Robinson and other surprises. And certain elements of the show itself will also enhance the hubbub: Seiler's barker assemblage and the working miniature Ferris wheel by Matt Doubek and Sam Mobley, which is loaded down with mini works and soft sculptures you can buy.

It's all a prelude to a Carnivalesque masquerade party slated at the gallery on October 29. Then, in the spirit of Halloween, partygoers will be invited to evoke the carnival with circus-worthy costumery. Will Bidwell come as the Tattooed Lady? You never know.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd