Friday, February 3, 2017
The sword swallower. The tattooed girl. The snake charmer and the spider girl. The sideshow banner line is one of the most indelible images of the circus and among the most recognizable figures in this uniquely American art form is Fred G. Johnson. Born in 1892 in Chicago, Johnson started working for U.S. Tent and Awning Co. at the age of 14 and later banner painter H.D. Cummings as an cleaning assistant . Cummings took the young Johnson under his wing, teaching him to paint despite Johnson's lack of any formal artistic training.
Johnson did his most notable work at the O. Henry Tent and Awning company where he worked for the majority of his career from 1934 to 1974, joining the company after Charles Driver, one of the original owners of U.S. Tent and Awning went to work (having briefly left U.S. Tent to start his own short lived banner painting business where Johnson was also employed). In O. Henry's employ, Johnson also created artwork for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair Century of Progress exhibit.
Over the course of his 40 year career, almost every circus, major or minor used Johnson's banners at one point or another. His bold, eye catching colors were created using a special mixture of oil paint, ground crayon, benzine and boiled linseed oil as well as several undisclosed ingredients. This mixture allowed Johnson to get the brightest colors with the least paint and the fewest coats. According to his own reports, Johnson could produce as many as four eight foot tall banners a day. His competitor, Snap Wyatt (1905-1984) averaged only one similarly sized canvas per day while Tattoo Jack Cripe, a student of Wyatt's claimed to average 8 to 10 hours per painting.
In their day, works by artists like Johnson, Wyatt, and Cripe sold for around $85 and were considered simple advertising. In recent years, however, their work has gained a new appreciation as folk art. Johnson's surviving banners in less than ideal condition have sold for nearly $2000 at Sotheby's auction house while others have gone for as much as $5000 at other auction houses. Today, his works as well as those of other banner artists hang in numerous museums across the country including the State of Illinois Art Center Gallery, and circus museums in both Baraboo Wisconsin and Sarasota Florida.