MUSEUMS | Miniature Circus at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

It is the littlest biggest show on Earth! Since 2006, the Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, has hosted a miniature circus that recreates the classic show’s day-to-day operation in a small scale.  The Howard Bros. Circus is a 3/4 inch-to-foot scale model of a traveling circus as it would have appeared in the early 20th century. The model was the dream of Howard Tibbals who fell in love with the circus as a young boy.

The Howard Bros. Circus, named after Tibbals himself, depicts the circus and surrounding operations as they might have appeared between 1919 and 1938. The 3,800 square foot model is comprised of over 44,000 pieces, including a four foot tall Big Top in the center of it all. Inside, the tiny crowd watches from the 7,000 miniscule folding chairs as acrobats “fly” though the air. The Big Top is one of eight large tents that make up the bulk of the display, 1,500 various workers and performers put on the show, some dressed in replicas of costumes from the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. Joining them are over 500 hand carved animals. Even more amazingly, the entire model can be packed away in the 55 handmade train cars, just like the real circus would have been when it was time to move on.

Tibbals began building the model in 1956 and had a majority of it completed by 1974, however it would not go on display until 1982 at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. He continued to add to the model over the years. In 2004, he found a permanent home for it at the Ringling Museum. In addition to the model, he also donated the funds for the building of the Tibbals Learning Center which houses the model, a mural of a 1980’s circus, and a gallery of interactive circus exhibits.

When getting ready to install the piece in the museum, Tibbals recruited other artists to help him finish the piece. Jace Gostisha was one of the artists who worked on the exhibit. He shared his experience with Smallisimo.

Jace GostishaAs a student of the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, I was given the opportunity to work for Mr. Howard Tibbals on his circus project at the Ringling Museum. I was to sculpt miniature circus figures that were to fill in parts of his miniature display. The majority of the actual circus figures and animals were already completed and in the process of being set up. My job was to create the crowd members and workers to fill in the miniature world Mr. Tibbals had created to help tell the visual story of circus life.

First step was to pull the reference materials, which Mr. Tibbals had a plethora of! I studied numerous black and white photos from that time era, and I made note of the clothing, accessories, and styles.

The first sets of figures that I sculpted were designed for placement in the cook tent. This included sculpting apron-wearing, pancake-flipping cooks, exhausted circus performers, and various other people walking and sitting at the picnic tables under the camp tent.

After completing about fifty figures for the cook tent, I then set out to create workers caring for the horses in the horse tent. This was my favorite part of the project, because I was able to design the workers doing various jobs, such as tending to the horses, cleaning up the stables, and even creating workers taking a break on some hay bales (look for the guy taking a quick nap).

The final part of my project was to fill in the massive show tent with as many spectators that I could create. The majority of the figures in this tent were sitting down, so I had to make sure that their poses and scale worked with the size of the chairs. [pull_quote align=”right”]A neat detail to note is that every single one of the folding chairs in that tent actually work just like folding chairs.[/pull_quote]

It was a fantastic and rewarding experience to be able to sculpt and paint over 300 figures for Mr. Tibbals’ Circus Museum. The whole display he has designed and created at the Ringling Circus Museum is truly a piece of art, and I look forward to visiting it whenever I’m in the area.

Jace Gotisha is a graduate of the Ringling College of Art and Design with a BFA in Illustration. For the past seven years, he has been a Product Development Manager with The Bradford Exchange.

Museums is a LIVE Section series of articles about fine crafted minis and collections.

One thought on “MUSEUMS | Miniature Circus at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

  1. That is absolutely fantastic, I just keep going from picture to picture, seeing new things each time I go back and look again! It brings back many memories from my childhood – it’s wonderful to see it captured in miniature!

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