The Unholy Sideshow

rev at rest

Quiet and unassuming over a morning cup of coffee, Rev is anything but on stage.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan, who describes Rev as a P.T. Barnum and Criss Angel fusion.

He hands a red staple gun — the kind you’d use to tack carpets down — to a guy in a bar — the kind of guy who might tack those carpets down — holding a dollar bill. The guy in the bar staples the dollar bill to his torso. The guy in the bar smiles, comes back with a five and staples it to his cheek.

Why? Why would you let a stranger staple filthy currency to your body?

“Because I can,” Rev says. (He prefers his stage name be used, although his birth name is no secret to Facebook users.)

Rev is a lanky guy with a mesmerizing presence. Piercings, dreads, tattoos, along with a handlebar moustache, bow tie and a bowler. He prides himself in his dichotomy, down to his carefully planned ink — right arm bedecked with religious icons, left with more “sinister” imagery.

fox trap on arm

Rev’s right arm, in a fox trap, is inked wih sacred iconography. Here is St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


This part-Steampunk-part-rock-‘n-roll charisma comes to life on stage. The Reverend First Minister (a.k.a. Rev) is a showman. My guess is that he could talk his way out of, or into, any situation. My fear is the circumstances he willingly puts himself in. I’m the squeamish type. Evidently, his best audience, the kind that watches through our fingers, wincing.

The Upper Black Eddy resident and four fellow entertainers form The Unholy Sideshow, a name that says it all. They perform wickedly irreverent feats of daring. Much of which I can’t watch. Some of which children shouldn’t, although the troupe can tone down their more risqué acts, and be quite entertaining for kids.

mousetrap on tongue

Rev lets a 9-year-old and a mousetrap loose on his tongue.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


Joining Rev on stage are Davey Danger (few real names are used here – I’m setting aside good journalistic practices for today), a Pilates instructor also from Upper Black Eddy; Catalina Askew, an artist and burlesque dancer from Allentown; fellow Allentown resident Jay Sin Aces, a machinist who once raced BMX professionally; and Philadelphia’s Atlas Drugged, a former Navy nuclear engineer.

Danger’s marquee act is hanging from his ankles while escaping from a straight jacket. Askew is a “human dart board,” contortionist and fire breather. Aces excels at the bed of nails, often paired with breaking cinder blocks on his body. Drugged (yes, I just wrote that) is a strongman, trained in the traditional arts since age 12.

As Rev talks about eating light bulbs, sticking hairpins through his face and walking on swords, I worry that it’s all an illusion, that I’m more gullible than I’d imagined. No one could do that to themselves and not faint or bleed out on stage. He assures me it’s all real.

“When I’m on stage, I’m not lying,” Rev says. He is an expert on anatomy and physics. And pain tolerance. Years of piercings and tats have inured him to pain. “You get so used to it, it’s nothing. You know how it feels. When you know how something feels you turn off that pain response.”

Could be an explanation for Michelle Duggar. Just a thought.

When he opens his box of props, I’m nervous. Aw, geesh, don’t do it. But he grabs a screwdriver from the prop box and a hammer from his pickup (he’s a contractor by day) and hammers the screwdriver up his nose. I have nightmares about such things. Truly.

screwdriver up nose

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


“On stage I use the microphone,” he says. “It makes a nice ‘thunk, thunk, thunk.'”

I’m dumbstruck. Do you thunk about what you’re doing to your body? I think.

“If you do it wrong, you hurt yourself,” Rev says. “People have died doing this.”

Rev specializes in what he calls torture routines. His props include regulation mousetraps and fox traps. Needles and swords, all sharp. Light bulbs still in the packaging and an anchor purchased at a boat supply. That anchor? He hangs it from his tongue. The swords? He walks on them, blade up, of course.

For him, it’s pushing the boundaries of what he can do. It’s a challenge. He seems ever ready to take on an exploit, saying he could walk on glass and swords just about any time, although during our early morning meeting, he does confess, “I’m not sure I want to eat a light bulb this morning.” Understood.

There are some stunts, however, that he can only do while on stage. The adrenaline helps spur him on. And the crowd. He’s a natural showman, at ease with a crowd of sophisticate-wanna-bes at a sweet sixteen party, families at a state fair or a rowdy bunch at a tattoo convention.

Not only is Rev the “pain-proof man” but he is the “talker.” He keeps the audience engaged. His innate ability to connect is how he got started in the sideshow biz. A friend was performing, but didn’t have the knack for addressing the crowd. Rev stepped in, to great success. It isn’t just banter that sets him apart. He can open a beer bottle with his throat, climbs a ladder of sharp swords 4 feet in the air and leaps off into broken glass. And his “face of pain,” involving needles and that anchor hooked through his tongue, is his signature act. No one else does it.

There’s a reason. It would hurt.

deathproof man

Rev has appeared on Science Channel’s Oddities and WMMR’s Preston and Steve show. Last weekend The Unholy Sideshow appeared at Jersey Shore Music Festival. August 3 they will perform on the new stage at Fran’s Pub in New Hope.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


“The things he does and the way he does them really aren’t extremely painful,” Rebecca Gittings, Rev’s mother, says. “Except the stapling.”

Yes, the stapling. It worries her, especially the risk of infection.

“I’m a nurse, so I’m not terribly squeamish,” she says, yet still worries about the stapling. “There are a few spots I’m not fond of at all, like the head.” (For $20, Rev lets you take the tool to his head. I think he should raise his prices.)

She assures me he felt pain as a child. “He didn’t do anything dangerous, really, when he was growing up,” Rev’s mother says. “I never had to worry about him getting into trouble, never had any problems with him. All in all he’s a nice guy. He’s his own person, no doubt about it.”

Gittings just wants for Rev, his brother and his sister what all mothers want for their children. “I always wanted my kids to be happy with what they do.”

That guy in the bar, the one stapling a $5 to Rev’s cheek — he isn’t the only one smiling.

quiet rev

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

— Jodi Thompson

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Weekly Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour

Sometimes the best places aren’t in Bucks County. My wonderful photog, Bailey, took this pic on a recent roadtrip. Enchanting.

— JT

beingbailey

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour

My entry in the Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour taken on McGrath Pond in Maine as we were eating dinner and waiting for the sun to go down. A serene and special place in deed.

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Artist Profile: Miriam Carpenter

feather in hand

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

The anatomy of the feather is delicate. Each barb delineated as together they form both striated vanes radiating from the center. She grasps its fragile splendor by the calamus to avoid crushing the downy barbs. A single gust, a gentle breeze, seems capable of launching it skyward. Yet, however airy it appears, if her hold loosened, the feather would drop to the ground. It is wooden.

Artist Miriam Carpenter has carved the feather from white oak. Yes, she’s heard the jokes: her name is carpenter and she works with wood — Meta Miriam. This rather young and wholly exquisite artisan creates such beauty from wood, that she was hired by George Nakashima Studio more than six years ago, only a year out from her studies of Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design.

At George Nakashima Woodworker, Carpenter is assistant designer to Mira Nakashima. Already, the Carpenter Coffee Table will debut, among 25 other Nakashima works, September 20 at Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia. The eponymous piece is the first named for her, but she has signed other pieces for which she has had a strong input.

dovetailing

Miriam Carpenter shows some intricate dovetailing work she has done.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Beyond the work she does at the prominent design studio, she is constantly exploring wood on her own. Even if that exploration involves a chainsaw, which she recently took to a 6-foot sassafras limb brought down by Hurricane Sandy. “The chainsaw was too slow. It wasn’t as aggressive as I thought it would be.”

Yes, this is the same long-limbed beauty who sings in a motet group with her parents and practices yoga complaining that a chainsaw isn’t aggressive enough. The same woodworker who double-turns bowls so flowing one is reminded of the sea. The same artist, who with Zen-based calmness, carves delicate feathers from blocks of wood.

feathers in box

Wooden feathers carved by Miriam Carpenter.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Yet, surprisingly, Carpenter only carved her first feather in June of last year. Except for a block print, she had never even carved before. Her paternal grandfather, known for carving decoys from wood, (Yes, even Grandpa Carpenter was meta.) passed away in 2012. The family bestowed the young Carpenter with his workbench and carving tools.

miriam at workbench

The woodworker sits in front of the workbench and carving tools that once belonged to her paternal grandfather.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Carpenter was invited to show at the 2012 EMMA International Collaboration in Canada, a biennial event bringing together 100 artists from around the world. The show theme was “Decoy.” Her grandfather had carved decoys.

miriam with decoy

Miriam Carpenter admires a decoy carved by her late grandfather.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

“I was thinking decoy, duck, duck, decoy,” Carpenter says. “Maybe I’ll just carve a feather.” She used a mallard feather for muse and a block of white oak with well demarcated medullary rays. She explains how the pattern between the late and early growth act like the warp and weft of woven fabric.

“The structure of each piece of wood is more fascinating to me than the subject,” says Carpenter. And she rushes to get a piece of white oak to pencil out how she’d find the feather in it.

pencil and block

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

She says people often ask why she carves the curve of the feather and doesn’t steam-bend it. “That would defeat the whole purpose,” she exclaims. “Exposing the pores and the structure is the whole process.”

Perhaps born under an auspicious star, her initial attempt worked. “I was lucky because I did everything right,” she says of her first feather effort. “The second one took me a lot longer.” She positioned it wrong, causing tear out.

She also struggled with a piece of pine, a soft wood that didn’t lend itself to the lovely filigree effect of oak. Lacewood did work, however.

It’s somehow soothing to hear she has struggled. She seems so successful for such a young person. And yet she hasn’t made any effort to market her accomplishment. She has absolutely no online presence. Still she succeeds.

miriam in thought

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

She has scored herself a two-month residency at Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia in the summer of 2014. “I’m ecstatic,” she says with authenticity. “I feel unworthy.”

Her modesty is almost annoying, considering her substantial talent — not to mention youth and attractiveness — but she is able to dismiss any irritation with her slightly geeky zeal for new technology. She slides into a description of quantum dots and nanocrystals with ease. She launches into a mini-tirade about permaculture, which she has studied, and why it isn’t being done more when the research is there.

Permaculture design, music, yoga, quantum dots and nanacrystals! She admits her interests are varied. “I’m all over the place with what I’m doing,” Carpenter adds. But it is wood that ultimately woos her.

“I just love wood,” Carpenter says. “There are so many layers, so no matter how long you work with it, you discover something new.”

— Jodi Thompson