Artist to Watch: Thomas Sciacca

The Kansas City artist captures the magic of the big tent in his “Sideshow Serenade” circus posters

Take a step back to the wonder of childhood — the time when magic was real and genuine awe was unfettered by the boundaries of social convention. Experiencing an amusement park, a captivating film or the wonders of the circus was a portal of imagination that led to another world. Illustrator Thomas Sciacca transports viewers back to these moments through his “Sideshow Serenade” series (2012-present) that highlights the magic and mystery of circus performers. Embracing more traditional methods of creating, Sciacca primarily uses colored pencils and paper to design circus posters of past and current performers, as well as some of his own invented characters.

These designs have been featured in solo shows at Todd Weiner Gallery (2014) and Phoenix Gallery (2016). After gaining steam in the circus scene over the past decade, numerous performers from all corners of the globe have also contacted Sciacca to have their likeness rendered on circus posters in his unique, old-world style. He notes, “People love to see themselves in this historical context, either on a banner or in a more ornate Victorian piece.” For his contracted work, Sciacca illustrates with watchmaker-like precision on paper just over the size of a playing card. These images are then blown up by the client, in some cases to 8 feet tall.

Thomas Sciacca’s drawing “The Great Omi” is part of his “Sideshow Serenade” series of circus posters. (from the artist)

Some of the characters he creates are based on historical circus performers, like Horace Ridler, known on stage as The Great Omi, who was covered from head to toe in tattoos. In Sciacca’s rendering, Omi looks to the side in deep contemplation, with inky patterns blossoming on his cheeks and bald head. Sciacca is so effective at portraying these worlds because he enters them in his own mind. “When I draw something, I’m in this other location,” he explains. “It’s partially like being a good magician or a good actor — you have to believe that the character or the trick or the picture is real.”

Sciacca has always had a vivid imagination, but he wasn’t taken with the circus until college, when he stumbled upon a book filled with old circus posters. Thumbing through it, he was instantly attracted to the vivid images and oddly unhuman characters within its pages. Grinning wide, Sciacca elaborates, “It was just the imagery that is just so much fun, and the subject matters are just so magical. You’ve got all these characters — it’s a whole world.” From that time forward, he was hooked on the fantasy of the circus, wandering around New York City to see locations where P.T. Barnum had his first dime circuses. Something stirred inside him, yet he did not return to this passion for a number of years. In the gaps, he worked in freelance illustration, set design and puppetry, all of which helped him create 3D installations for his solo “Sideshow Serenade” shows.

Sciacca found himself back in the circus when his friends Shannon Nacho Wolf and Mark Wright, owners of Rock Candy Vintage in New Paltz, New York, asked him to paint circus images on furniture and even hidden on the inside of vanity drawers. Wright remembers this time well, saying, “Once he had the idea, he ran with it and made some really cool pieces.”

Sciacca’s circus posters feel like well-preserved creations of the Victorian era, full of old-world charm with a heavy dose of camp and playfulness. This is intentional on both fronts. Sciacca himself is like a visitor from another time, much more connected to old ways of doing things. He also creates such lighthearted characters out of a deep need to stay connected to his own childhood. Full of awe and emotion, Sciacca described going to a remote amusement park and the sheer joy it brought him to be in such a place with his family. He explains, “These amusement parks were like nursery rhymes come to life. They were in this wooded, rural area, called something like Storytime. There were characters like Cinderella or Jack-be-Nimble.” This was a time of ice cream cones, pretzels, Route 66, cheap treasures from the toy machine and hard-won prizes from the peak of carnival Americana.

What could be more American than the sensory overload that is Coney Island? One of his illustrations, “Spookarama: Coney Island,” is an illustrated rendering of an animatronic cyclops that greets park guests as they enter the Spook-A-Rama haunted ride. Sciacca remembers its “big, stupid grin” and the absolute ridiculousness of its size and grandeur. Its green arms twist outward as a bright red eye slides back and forth menacingly. Sciacca has captured the cyclops perfectly, with a huge dopey grin that is as playfully inviting as it is devoid of any advanced thought.

In all that he does, Sciacca draws inspiration from the past, from fantasy and magic, in order to create a world that is open to all who dream of a different place. His style merges sharp detail with the color palette and levity of a cartoon. The performers’ smiles shine through as they swallow fire, contort themselves or simply exist as human beings perceived as “freaks.” “Sideshow Serenade” is a window into another world, meant to impart a bit of magic and wonder back into the lives of viewers.

Sciacca’s work can be seen and purchased at redbubble.com/people/thomassciacca.

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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