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A large banner advertising the first human skeleton welcomes visitors to the circus act. Beyond that, lies the famed grizzly bearded lady and thumb-sized man.

Starting Thursday, students will get a chance to step right up to a preserved American era at the UCF Art Gallery. The exhibit, "Step Right Up: Art of the Sideshow," will revisit the iconic circus sideshow, a show that used to exhibit uniquely mutated humans and animals.

Keri Watson, an assistant professor of art history, came up with the theme after researching the sideshow for three years.

"This exhibition is reflective of my interests in the intersection of 20th-century American visual culture and disability studies," said Watson, the exhibition's curator.

The six-week gallery will embody elements of the sideshow with large authentic banners, circus photographs, sculptures, paintings and viewings of two short documentary films produced by UCF students Milos Ajdinovic and Yson Dickson.

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Shelly Bradon, a Master of Fine Arts graduate, designed the "Cabinet of Curiosities" piece, which depicts anomalous porcelain images.

"The piece was created while I was a student in the program. It is a glass cabinet filled with premade porcelain objects," Bradon said. "I used porcelain ink to draw images of people who have been physically altered, either through their own choice, birth defects or physical attack."

Students visiting the gallery will be able to immerse themselves in a time when history met with social and political changes.

"The history of circus follows the American history and its economic and cultural changes. Traveling circuses had to deal with shifting economic, political and social landscapes at every stop," said Yulia Tikhonova, the UCF Art Gallery director.

Locally, Central Florida circuses and sideshows provided amusement long before the days of tourist attractions such as Disney World and Universal, Watson said.

"The Step Right Up" gallery will also be the first gallery in five years to collaborate with Theatre UCF.

"I am looking forward to the UCF theatre performance on Aug. 29. We will have A Look at the Sideshow, a performance piece in the gallery written and directed by UCF's Be Boyd and John Schafer," Tikhonova said. "The play portrays the challenging lives of real sideshow performers."

The free exhibit will begin with an opening reception Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Afterward, the gallery will be open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., when students can view additional collaborations set up by Tikhonova.

Gallerygoers can also catch a screening of horror movies featuring sideshows. The 1932 classic, Freaks, will be shown Aug. 25 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Sideshow: Alive on the Inside will be shown Aug. 26 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The closing reception, which will include guest artist Johnny Meah, is set for Aug. 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Along with transformative art collections, antique giant banners and life-size sculptures of the rare sideshow performers, the gallery will serve to close the gap between social stigmas and disability.

"'Step Right Up: Art of the Sideshow' hopes to subvert normative expectations and cultivate a space where differences are celebrated," Watson said.

Diversifying art and the way it portrays society's differences is what the art gallery intends to do through Watson's and other artists' visions of atypical art.

"Art is a language that everyone speaks," she said. "And it cuts across racial, cultural, social and economic barriers to enhance cultural awareness."

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Shanae Hardy is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at ShanaeH@CentralFloridaFuture.com

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