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The freak shows are mostly gone now, doomed by economics and the mores of our age. A couple of decades ago, Otis Jordan—also known as the “Frog Boy” and the “Human Cigarette Factory” (on account of his ability to roll and light a cigarette using only his lips)—was temporarily law-suited out of business by a woman who found his performance an “intolerable anachronism” akin to “pornography of disability.”

“I can’t understand it,” Jordan was quoted as saying at the time. “How can she say I’m being taken advantage of? Hell, what does she want for me—to be on welfare?”

“This is one of those ironies that surround the sideshow,” says Mundie. “People want to stop these people from being exploited, yet they can’t see how the performers are often the ones in control of the exploitation, and manage to turn an adverse situation to their advantage.

“A lot of people who work in freak shows realize that, ‘People are going to stare at me; I can’t stop that. So why don’t I make them pay for the privilege?’” he adds. “So one can look at it not as exploitation but empowerment, or rather turning exploitation on its ear—because really, now this person is exploiting the audience. Nowadays, even if people wished to exhibit themselves, they would be unable to do so. In some cases there are actual local statutes against the presentation and exhibition of human anomalies.”

There’s another reason for the demise of the freak show.

“One has to consider that with advances in medicine, many of the genetic anomalies that might predispose someone to enter into show biz simply don’t occur as often,” notes Mundie. “Or maybe sadly, someone who has the ability to determine if the fetus is going to be deformed, may very often abort it.”

What have we lost by keeping these anomalies off the stage and out of sideshow tents? In Mundie’s view, quite a lot, though he knows that many of the rubes who went to freak shows didn’t exactly go to become enlightened.

“They went for a cheap thrill,” he concedes. “And there’s room for that as well—obviously that’s why these things were so popular, and that’s how they made their money.”

But without the ability to experience firsthand what these anomalies offer, “we lose the opportunity to learn something about ourselves that could only really be learned in those circumstances,” he argues. “You can see a picture in a book; you can watch a film; but it’s not the same as being there in that room, making the choice to walk in, walking up close to the person and perhaps speaking to them, hearing them tell their tale. There’s that sense of theater and mystery—actually walking into the tent, like an initiation rite: I’m paying for the privilege of being let into this wonderful secret! Most of the time that secret was a complete scam. But that was part of the fun of it.”

Mundie has been exploring the mysteries of art since he was old enough to hold a pencil. As a kid he checked out his full share of books on Renaissance painting from his local library in New Britain, Pennsylvania. (“I don’t think I really understood the symbolism in these works at the time,” he admits, “but they spoke to me on a personal level.”) He has yet to kick the habit of perusing art books, and he and his wife have amassed a “very respectable personal library of monographs,” to which he is constantly referring.

Along with a lifelong fascination with beauty, he says, he has always been attracted to the “weird and uncanny.” That includes ghost stories, horror movies, and the sort of oddities found in Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guinness Book of World Records—especially such human anomalies as Jojo the Dog-faced Boy (“hairiest man in the world!”) and James Earl Hughes, once the world’s fattest man (“buried in a coffin the size of a piano case!”). Those images, he says, “were forever burned into my visual memory.”

It was the ornamental side of Franklin’s vision that brought Mundie to Penn, where he started to take courses while still enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Along with the required art-history classes, he found himself drawn to folklore and other absorbing but not exactly “useful” courses.

“I often found the most obscure and out-of-the-way things the most intriguing, and I would try to find an unusual way to approach the subject,” he says. One instructor of a “particularly mind-numbing course on Third World architecture was quite baffled but pleased when I presented a research project on Dogon architecture in the form of a comic book.”

On the whole, his experiences at Penn taught him that “few things in life can or should be compartmentalized,” he adds. “An understanding of one topic—even one that seems obscure—may lead to discovery in another. Everything is connected, and the trick is to find those points of interaction. That openness to possibility helped spawn Prodigies.”

Around the time he graduated from Penn in 1997, Mundie began working on a series of woodcut portraits, and soon found himself wanting to try something “a little off the beaten track.” He kept thinking about Jojo the Dog-faced Boy and the other freakish images from his childhood, and was curious to see the old photographs again. He wasn’t having much luck tracking them down until his wife remembered a book of photographs of unusual people that she had seen years before. It was Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others, written by the late Daniel P. Mannix C’35. Mundie was quickly hooked.

“I started to read about these people’s lives and was completely wrapped up in the spooky visceral chill of their other-ness,” he says. “Here were people that, due to chance genetic mutation, were segregated from society, but also sought out to perform a special stylized role. This was the primordial theater of the macabre—horror, fiction, tragedy, and comedy rolled up in one uncanny and taboo subject.”

 

In his mind’s eye, Mundie originally saw these portraits as etchings. Since he didn’t have access to a printing press or acid, he decided to work out his ideas in drawing form.

“I was thinking, ‘OK, this is just an immediate way I can get this out, and eventually I’ll return to them as etchings,’” he says.

Instead, the drawings took on a life of their own.

“There’s a quality to the drawing that I cannot get in the etching, but at the same time a lot of people remark on how the tones I’m achieving in the drawing mimic the sort of lush tones that you might get in an aquatint or a mezzotint,” he notes. “That may be a subconscious thing, because I wanted so much to be working on etchings that I found myself handling the pen as I would an etching needle, inscribing a plate, stippling—doing all those things that normally one would get in aquatints.” (For the record, an aquatint is an etching process that can produce several different tones by varying the etching time of different areas of a copper plate. A mezzotint involves scraping or burnishing areas of a copper or steel plate to produce effects of light and shadow.)

Mundie spends months on each portrait, though he is usually working on more than one at a time.

“There’s a sort of anal-retentive quality to my personality that I spend so much time laboring over these things,” he admits. “But it’s a lot of building up of delicate textures and manipulating tiny little strokes of the pens—to the point where my wife thinks I’m insane.”

The images that became Prodigies grew out of several interests, he notes: an affinity for portraiture, a passion for art history, and a “natural curiosity for pathology.” He has amassed a trove of stories about the characters he’s portrayed, as well as an impressive collection of cards, photographs, pamphlets, and other freak-show paraphernalia, some of which can be viewed on his website.

“I started this series in ’98, and I’m still working through it,” he says. “A lot of people, when they saw the initial series and I had done the first 20 or so drawings, said something to the effect of, ‘Well, how far can you take it? You’re going to run out of freaks eventually.’ And I’m like: ‘Not necessarily—not in this world!’”

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

FEATURE:
Freak Love
By Samuel Hughes

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