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Exhibit features circus sideshow banners with environmentalist twist


"Professor Animalia's Menagerie of Struggling Species," an exhibit to raise environmental awareness, is in Untitled Light, a Bloomington art hub and gallery. Joe Lee and Bess Lee are the artists behind the project. Courtesy Photo

The April exhibit "Professor Animalia's Menagerie of Struggling Species" has come to Bloomington art hub and gallery Untitled Light, which is located at 212 West Fourth Street.

The exhibit features circus sideshow banners meant to raise environmental awareness, according to an Untitled Light press release.

Joe and Bess Lee make up the husband-and-wife team behind the project, according to the release. Bess Lee has worked as a public school art teacher and painter while Joe Lee studied mime, juggling and other clown skills at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College before going on to work with the Ringling Brothers, the King Brothers-Cole and Hoxie Brothers Circuses, according to his website.

But Joe Lee switched to a career as an illustrator with his first project, "The History of Clowns for Beginners," according to his website.

"I wanted to reclaim the disrepute that clowning had fallen into," according to his website. "When people thought of clown they thought of Ronald McDonald or Bozo, not Joey Grimaldi or the Kachina clowns of the Pueblos in the American southwest. There was this great connection across cultural times and meanings about what clowns were. That was a project I really wanted to do."

Joe Lee went on to illustrate for books about postmodernism, Shakespeare and Easter philosophy. He was also an editorial cartoonist for the Herald-Times, according to his website.

For "Professor Animalia's Menagerie of Struggling Species" this April, Joe Lee worked with his wife to combine his circus background and illustrations, according to the release.

"Using sideshow banners, Joe and Bess Lee combine whimsical, joyful folk art with the serious pathos of extinction," according to the release.

Traditional circus banners are promotions that show an audience in awe of sword swallowers, trapeze artists and human cannonballs, according to the release. But Joe and Bess Lee's work puts animals in the place of these performers — Monarch butterflies teetering on the high-wire, an elephant perched on a human finger and balancing the Earth precariously on its trunk, a black rhino performing an act of life and death.

"Animalia is a reflection of these experiences as individual artists and concerned citizens — a reflection that will continue as a major focus in their work for years to come: creating art, creating community and creating awareness of the fragility of the planet," according to the release.

Christine Fernando

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