Step right up
Loud colors and a lot of paint are what first meet the eye in Killbuck’s workstation at the Generator.
Rex Norman, a.k.a. Killbuck, has been painting for more than 40 years. He used to work on seascapes, boats and historical paintings. Then he stumbled upon the art of sideshow banners on the internet. He was fascinated by the work of Fred Johnson, a prominent circus banner artist from the 1920s and ’30s, part of a North American tradition that had, by then, been thriving for a few decades. He searched for more images of banners and started experimenting with painting them.
Killbuck relayed a thought from an old showman: “There were three things that brought people into the side shows—morbid curiosity, sex and fear. These shows would have all kinds of weird acts such as fire breathers, belly dancers and people with physical oddities called ’freaks.’” He began painting that kind of imagery.
“You fiddle with a lot of things until you find that one thing that you want to do forever,” he said. “Since then, I have hardly painted anything else.” He’s been working in this style for over a decade, and, in the past three to four years, he has been getting more commissions.
“For some reason, this style of carnival circus-y kind of art has worked itself back into popular culture in the past few years, which is great because I happen to be here at the right time,” Killbuck said.
He was not always a full-time artist. He started off working in graphic arts and advertising and took up a summer job in the ’80s as a park ranger at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. He later worked at the Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, where his crew had nicknames such as Windybill, California Joe, and SideMeat.
“Maybe because I was the boss they did not want to give me a nickname,” he whispered.
One day, during the rut season, while driving along the range, he collided with “the biggest whitetail deer.” As Killbuck remembers it, SideMeat looked at the car and said, “Well, I think we know what we are going to call you now.”
“So that became my nickname, and I have been known as that ever since,” said Killbuck. “There are a lot of people who don’t know me by any other name.”
In addition to painting circus banners, Killbuck has also done some mural work and has a keen interest in making steampunk hats. He’s also busy working with the Merry War Theatre Group’s production of Comedy of Errors, which will be staged at the Lear Theater in a circus style.
“I am helping them with set pieces,” he said. “I am also going to be loaning 14 big banners, which are going to surround the inside of the audience area.”
Currently, he has a show at Jensen & Co., a beauty salon near East Fourth Street.
One of his favorite pieces, “Professor Blamo,” is on display there, depicting a guy in an elegant tuxedo with a top hat sitting on a throne surrounded by dynamite, TNT, rockets and other explosives. The man is blindfolded and holding a lit match. A tagline reads, “One performance only.”
Killbuck’s future plans include building a stronger body of work for future shows and bringing a piece called “Sideshow” to Burning Man for the last time this year.
“Just keep painting, is the motto,” he said.