Rachaela DiRosaria isn’t from New Orleans originally, but she has a local’s obsession with things that ain’t dere no more.
The woodworker and painter creates images in the style of Great Depression-era American advertising, creating boxes that focus on themes of vice, depression, religion and politics mostly through the lens of a series of fictional sideshow performers and circus freaks of her own invention.
If that sounds like a lot of window dressing, that’s merely a failure of my own writing. The pieces that DiRosaria creates pop in-person, catching the eye and communicating their message with a force akin to stroll-stopping shout of a carnival barker.
DiRosaria had been in and out of New Orleans her entire life, but made the decision to live here permanently after Hurricane Katrina forced her to consider the thought of a future without the city.
“I probably knew [when I was 16] that there was never going to be any other home base for me,” she said. “I came back in 2008 and I was like okay, I’m not leaving again. Mostly because of the storm I was like ‘I cant. lose. New Orleans. I definitely didn’t want to take that chance again.”
A few years after that, DiRosaria began painting and quickly started to breathe life into a litany of circus characters that she had dreamed up. When it came time to situate them, DiRosaria’s long-time interest in early advertising gelled perfectly.
“I’ve always been more interested in how these totally uneducated artists changed the landscape for things like Coca-Cola or aspirin just by painting bar signs,” she explained. “Obviously, the most vibrant and diverse of that genre would be for the circus or the sideshow, because if it wasn’t for those artists they wouldn’t be able to get those people to pay their five cents to come and see the show.”
DiRosaria says that her characters relate to the things she sees and hears in her daily life and that she’s able to share a reaction to those events through them. Fittingly, since the place she’s interacting with most is New Orleans, echoes of religious iconography and the occult regularly crop up in her paintings of tattooed ladies, strongmen and other sideshow performers.
“I was raised Catholic and religious elements resonate in our city,” she said. “My mom practices Santeria and there’s a lot of overlapping imagery between Santeria and Catholicism. I feel like there’s a lot of that echoing throughout my work.”
One of DiRosaria’s recent pieces is perhaps the most obvious she’s ever done in that regard. In the piece, a large woman holds a tattooed quadruple amputee in her arms, echoing Berlinghiero’s “Madonna and Child.” But there’s additional layers to the piece beyond the fact that Mary and Christ have been replaced by traveling circus freaks.
“She looks really fierce and she looks like ‘don’t f*ck with me’ but we’re not sure why she looks like that. I just know she doesn’t want to be effed with and she doesn’t want anyone to mess with her strange man-child that she has,” she said. “It mimics the Madonna and child but mimics a very intimate relationship that would not be a mother and child. It goes beyond that.”
DiRosaria said that this is very much by design. She doesn’t create surface-level portrayals of circus performers for people to gawk at. They have to be conveying something deeper for DiRosaria to even begin work on a piece.
“I don’t like sticking with just clear-cut circus freaks. There has to be an underlying reason, an underlying thing that makes me relate to the character and makes me want to bring it into reality,” she said. “I think about things like the circus characters and the hard life that they had. They were made a spectacle of. And I don’t want them to be just a laugh riot or bizarre. I want them to be strong humans and independent…even though they are just make believe.”