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Sideshow exhibit takes visitors for visual amusement park ride

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Artist Rebecca Davenport demonstrates her "Deflying Death" piece Artist Rebecca Davenport demonstrates her "Deflying Death" piece

Back in the days before every home had a television, and geographical isolation kept the world small for the average American, things like the circus, carnivals and fairs were a big deal.  They brought the reality of the outside world to the nation's small towns.

"During that time, freak shows were terribly popular," said Beaufort artist Rebecca Davenport. "Hundreds of people would come.  You want to see someone worse off.  We still have sideshows.  We have reality TV.  They're all dysfunctional and people are fascinated by that."

Davenport's art is featured in an exhibit at the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum called Step Right Up! Sideshows in American Culture.

Davenport remembers seeing sideshows as a girl when she showed calves at a county fair in Virginia.

"There are some experiences you have as an artist that are profound or have an effect on you and your life changes in some way," she said. "As an artist, that's what a lot of us do.  We go back to those moments and feelings and that's where this creativity drives us out and erupts in ways you never know."

The exhibit explores the cultural phenomenon of sideshows during the late 19th century to the present.

From Sweet Marie, the classic fat lady, to the Geek Head, Davenport's darkly whimsical paintings and three-dimensional work combine the past and the present.

"This Geek Head…normally would be a guy who would tear the heads off chickens or mice, that was his act," explained Davenport. "So I made him into a computer guy.  He's holding a mouse."

"There's a lot of irony and humor in these pieces," she said.  "They're kind of scary at the same time, but they're fun, too.  Just like an amusement park."

Just like an original sideshow, where visitors could talk to the "misfits," some of Davenport's pieces are interactive, including  Deflying Death, featuring winged pigs on a trapeze.

"I always liked the idea of participation," she said.  "It draws one in, so you're not just standing there looking.  You become a participant.  In that way, I think you appreciate it more and enjoy it more."

Many of her pieces are made from recycled items, such as a bicycle wheel, wooden spindles, or a hose from an old vacuum cleaner.

"A lot of the pieces, I toy with what's real and what isn't real."

In reality, Keechee and the Giant Vacuum is a self-portrait, which Davenport calls a "psychological portrait." 

But Davenport says she remembers being saddened by exhibits, some of which featured people and animals with physical abnormalities.

"It was sad," she said.  "You kind of felt uncomfortable. People would stare at them.  The carnys, they stared back at the audience."

"In those days, the people had jobs.  They weren't isolated.  They weren't institutions. Now we have, for most of these abnormalities, there are cures, or it's the handicapped.  It's a whole different world."

The exhibit runs through May 21st.  A series of lecture-performance talks on the sideshow culture is scheduled in late spring. The series will feature scholars recognized for their research in the area of sideshows and freak culture. All events are free and open to the public.

On April 12, New York City-based performer, author and sideshow enthusiast Todd Robbins will perform at McKissick Museum and present the documentary "American Carny: True Tales from the Circus Sideshow." 

McKissick Museum is located on the University of South Carolina's historic Horseshoe. All exhibits are free and open to the public.

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