Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Art of the Amusement Park: Growing up in Southwestern PA

On Saturday, my wife and I headed over to New Castle’s Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts to take in their show “The Art of the Amusement Park: Growing up in Southwestern PA”. We got lost. And by we, I mean, I. But that’s beside the point.

The show includes a collection of vintage carousel horses, memorabilia, and other amusement park menagerie exploring the evolving role of our region’s amusement parks, places like Idora, Cascade, Kennywood, & Idlewild.

The show winds through the Hoyt’s gallery spaces. There are more horses than I had expected – remembering from Conneaut Lake’s carousel dolphins, griffins, hippos and more. And these are presented as folk art – although it sounds like a show little children might enjoy, it’s probably not. But folk art enthusiast, carousel hobbyists, and sculpture aficionados will find the exhibit worthwhile.

Two items fascinated me about this exhibit. First was how terrifying these carols animals were. I mean truly frightening – nothing like thee could ever be on a carousel or children today – weak spined helicopter parents would never allow it (although in the animal’s defense, my wife said that it was eye that saw them as demonic beats wracked with pain – she had a completely different, friendly take on it.) These are not cute and fuzzy animals. The wild musculature of the carvings created a sense of motion for the “jumpers” the animals designed to move up and down and the ornamatation (much of it real brass as opposed to painted base metals) of the second row animals versus the first row with their wear and smoothness testified to generation of children gripping tightly with sweaty, excited palms.

I left the exhibit anteing one for my own, to plant right in the middle of the parlor. But, they’re pretty much out of my price range. Although they may not be traditional fine art, they re widely valuable. Charlotte Dinger of Morristown, the author of Art of the Carousel told the New York Times, “The largest and most ornate [horses] on the outside row start at about $20,000," she said, "while very plain wooden horses on the inside rows may be as low as $4,000."

“As low as”. Ouch. So, instead, I took my time really looking at them, trying to see them as art and not as nostalgia pieces. To really appreciate the animals. We’ve all seen merry-go-rounds so much that it’s easy to pass by details like the fact that the outside flank of the animals was much more heavily decorated that the inside were implied rather than brought out by the signage.
The presentation of the show doesn’t make appreciation easy. The signage was abysmal – 14 point type affixed the bases which meant that I literally had to crouch at the floor to read them to find they were riddled with repetitions and mistakes (dates swinging widely with 19XX substituted mistakenly for 18XX.) And all the names of the artists, thrown together with little context, were a bit overwhelming, the exhibit didn’t flow from room to room and the organizing principal was unclear. Secondly, and actually more disturbing was the filthiness of the exhibit – the animals were coated with dust and cobwebs and while I may not be a conservation expert, I’m pretty sure that removal of surface dust and debris is an acceptable practice – two of the display bases had suffered water damage and were clearly rotting away.

So, what’s good about this exhibit? It’s a step in right direction in terms of preserving part of our history that is rapidly disappearing. What really happened, I wonder, to the animals from Monarch Park?) “By nature Americans are disposable people," a recent article in the New York Times read. "For example, at the turn of the century, everyone wanted a music box, but when the radio came along they got rid of the music boxes. Those that survived today are valuable.
"It's the same with merry-go-rounds, which were scraped to make way for new rides and new parks. The handsomely carved carousel animal was tossed on a junk heap, burned, bulldozed or, for some lucky folks, stashed in a garage."

“The Art of the Amusement Park: Growing up in Southwestern PA”. runs until August 22nd. The Institute is located at 124 E Leasure Ave, New Castle, Pennsylvania 16101. MapQuest it. Signage is non-existent. Gallery hours: Tuesday & Thursday 10-8, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday 10-5. Call 724-652-2882 for more info. Admission is free, but filled with liberal guilt, I threw a couple bucks in the donation box.

This week I'm reading Fighter With a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice Pittsburgh Labor Priest for the Franklin Public Library's Summer Reading Program for Grownups.

I can't believe the first-ever A No. 1 Hobo Memorial Festival held yesterday in Cambridge Springs wasn't better publicized. I would have been there in a second.

Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater is seeking applicants for the William and Clarissa Stanier Arts Award. The recipient will develop a new work to be featured at the May 13-17, 2009 International Children’s Festival. Appropriate mediums include theater, puppetry, dance, music, circus or variety arts. Entries will be accepted from individuals and organizations and should be appropriate for children ages 3-12 and families. Award will range from $5,000-10,000. For guidelines and an application, email Pam Lieberman or call 412-321-5520,

Paper mache sculptor Gene Fenton, creator of a menagerie of fantastic-looking "monsters" of all shapes and sizes, is now offering the public the opportunity to pose for photographs with his creatures. Fenton is looking for arts festivals, Halloween/gothic celebrations, costume parties, and other events.For more information about arranging a photo shoot with Fenton's handmade creatures for your next event email .

An event planner is looking for bluegrass musicians to play for Ligonier-area church service in a very old country church - low key instrumentals. Email for more information

A Salem (OH) green building design consult and build business is looking for a muralist for "a 225 feet long and about 12 feet high" wall. Email for more info.

Modofly is holding a design contest for engraved moleskine notebooks.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) is offering free admission for children age 17 and under at its 24 historical sites this August. That includes Drake Well Museum; Erie Maritime Museum and U.S. Brig Niagara

Literary rags sells author t-shirts.

Free and Legal Downloads:

Yewknee is offering downloadable Summer themed mixtapes

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