Like a lot of kids, Dawn Saunders Dahl dreamed of running off to join the circus while she was growing up.
“I was longing to escape, to get away from reality,” recalled Saunders Dahl, whose Prairie Circus Series: Figurative Works exhibit is showing in the Kiwanis Gallery, downstairs at the Red Deer Public Library.
“Of course, it never happened. …”
The “magical” travelling circus packed up after spending a few days near her home in Camrose, taking its glittery costumes, acrobats and fair rides on to the next Prairie destination. But part of its kitschy glamour stuck in Saunders Dahl’s imagination.
She fondly thought of the circus’s sparkly and gold-painted trappings as a “weird, surreal kind of thing.”
These childhood memories came flooding back in 2002, while the Red Deer College-trained artist was doing a residency in France. “We went to this old circus, and the rides were falling apart,” she recalled. “There was this great big toy clown and (it looked like) his skin was peeling.”
Really it was paint. But “it was like 20 feet high, and his arms moved and really, it was actually kind of creepy,” said Saunders Dahl, with a chuckle.
She was once again bitten by the circus bug. This time she decided to get some glitter paint and put some of her impressions on canvas.
Many of the portraits Saunders Dahl painted in the following decade contain elements of the surreal — masks — contrasted with the mundane — her subjects’ clothing and unadorned, sepia-toned faces. The artist intentionally sought to depict the “dichotomy” between the fantastical hyper-reality created by circus performance and people’s everyday lives.
The very idea of a Prairie circus “is this weird juxtaposition,” she said, of the familiar and grotesque.
Her largest work, the two panel After Guernica, was named after Picasso’s famous anti-war painting because it is compositionally similar, said the artist.
It hints at a deeper theme, with light-hearted circus life — portrayed by an accordion player and Dr. Seuss character on the left side of the painting — becoming nightmarish, with skulls on the right.
But Saunders Dahl, who attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary after graduating from RDC’s visual arts program in 1996, said she doesn’t have a particular message she wants to impart to viewers of her artwork. “If it makes them think of their own childhood memories, or of circuses, or of what a weird thing it is to see a circus on the Prairies,” then that’s fine, she added.
According to her artistic statement, “Evoking moods and memories, a playground of nostalgia and personal revelations is created.”
Saunders Dahl, who curated group exhibitions for The Works Art and Design Festival in Edmonton, is now an administrator with the Edmonton Arts Council.
Her works have appeared in solo and group shows across Alberta and in France.
In 2010, some of her portraits appeared in the Farm Women exhibit at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
The Prairie Circus Series: Figurative Works show goes to Oct. 18 in the gallery that’s curated by the Red Deer Arts Council.