Jim Seigler: My Life With the Circus: Let the Calliopes Play!

Jim Seigler's sketch for a circus pageant, Elephants on Parade, from an exhibition at Hyde Park Gallery.
Jim Seigler's sketch for a circus pageant, Elephants on Parade, from an exhibition at Hyde Park Gallery.

Jim Seigler began designing for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus long before most of us were born. His designs are for sets, floats and costumes, but there's more, much more. Seigler is also an accomplished ceramicist, mostly portraying circus characters, and also a sensitive portrait artist.

Hyde Park Gallery presents Jim Seigler: My Life with the Circus, documenting Seigler's range of talents in its cavernous space, allowing multiple examples of his different genres. Seigler graduated from The Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, which developed in him an affinity for vivid colors and dynamic figures. Seigler says "You can see the circus in everything I paint."

The exception is a set of three charcoal portraits from 1949: "Wisdom", of an older man, and "Grande Dame" and "Retired Performer", of older women. These offer compelling glimpses of lives fully led, and indicate a sympathetic bonding with humanity, with all its depth, passion, and frailty.

There are portraits of clowns, as you might expect, but the circus also offers spectacular pageantry, usually themed to a single event or culture. Designs for these by Seigler are often done in watercolors, and show an intriguing grace, a delicacy, that approaches elegance. The Princess Periezade uses purple and green colors, and black-and-white for contrast, to a most pleasing effect.

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Some works are solitary sketches for garments, but Seigler shapes them to life, showing the wearer as well as the garment. One in particular is deeply involving, as Seigler heavily shadows the right side of the garment, reducing detail but communicating the air of mystery he intended.

There are ringmasters galore, and girls riding elephants, and a Harem Girl sketch for a 1957-1958 pageant that reminded me of Aubrey Beardsley's work. One painting, "Elephants on Parade" is mostly blue in color, but elaborate in wit, with the elephant wearing a hat with nine large globes, and the rider wearing a cape with a huge train, tended to by an assistant walking behind the elephant, the amusing details rising to the level of poetry.

There are a number of brightly colored ceramic sculptures, often of clowns with witty, exaggerated hats; these are delightful. I especially liked a two-piece sculpture, with a seal perched on a ball in one part, and, completely separate, its trainer putting it through its paces.

You've missed the opening reception on May 15, but there are a number of exhibition-related events still coming up. On May 30 is a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth; on June 12 Jim Seigler will discuss his life with the circus; and there is a closing reception June 29. And the University of Houston - Downtown is doing an historical retrospective at the O'Kane Gallery this fall.

Come to this most colorful and engaging exhibition. Let the calliopes play and the trumpets blare!

Jim Seigler: My Life with the Circus continues through June 21, presented by Hyde Park Gallery - A Pictures Plus Co., at Hyde Park Gallery, 115 Hyde Park. Admission is free. Open 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, 11 to 3 Saturday, Special events on three Fridays: May 30 at 7: screening of film The Greatest Show on Earth; June 12 at 7, Artist Talk - "My Life with the Circus; closing reception June 29 at 6:30. Information at 713-524-6913 or http://picturesplusartgallery.com.

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