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Robert "The Man with Two Faces" Melvin as Janus of Traveling Outdoor Amusement

"Robert

Ink drawing on paper, 9.75 x 7.25 inches, 2023


Robert Owen Melvin (19201995) was born with a form of neurofibromatosis that caused benign tumors to grow on the right side of his head, creating the impression of two very different faces. Despite this, Robert was outgoing and friendly and did not consider his appearance to be a handicap. He was religiously devout and often referred to his condition as just an example of "God's sense of humor."

In 1949, Bob Melvin entered show business by exhibiting himself in Coney Island as "The Modern Day Elephant Man" and "The Man with Two Faces." In addition to his work on stage, Bob also served as the show's accountant. He would continue to work in traveling shows such as World of Mirth for many years. During the off-season, Melvin returned to his hometown of Lancaster, Missouri, and worked as bookkeeper for a hardware store. In 1952, Bob Melvin married his girlfriend Virginia, whom he had known since his teens. Bob and Virginia had a daughter and remained married for more than 40 years.

In addition to his work in freak shows, Bob Melvin had a career in film. Melvin appeared in two horror movies: Brian de Palma's conjoined twin thriller Sisters (1973) and as a demon in Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977). He was also featured in the documentaries Being Different (1981) and I Am Not a Freak (1987).

The composition for this portrait was based on a woodcut illustration of the Roman god Janus by David Kandel (1520-1592). Janus, for whom the first month of the year is named, was considered the god of beginnings, portals, duality, transitions, and endings. He presided over birth and death, war and peace, travel and commerce. What deity could be better suited to oversee the traveling carnival industry? In Kandel's composition, the two-faced god stands in a landscape upon two globes and holds a large key in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. I kept the key as a nod to the joke showmen would often play on outsiders by sending them on a fool's errand to fetch the key to the midway. I replaced the grapes with a cone of candy floss. At Bob's feet is a torn away page from a calendar marking May 1st, the traditional start of the circus season (new personnel are nicknamed "First of Mays"); and an ouroboros, a dragon eating its own tale that in alchemy symbolizes cyclical renewal but which would itself make a fantastic sideshow exhibit.

This drawing will be featured in the exhibition Conversations with the Other, 4 March 29 April 2023, and is available for purchase from Stanek Gallery in Philadelphia.


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All Images and Text James G. Mundie 2006 - 2023