During the medieval and renaissance eras in France, actors were employed by royalty to dress as mythological characters and pose during parties while ladies and lords of luxury cavorted around them. These were the first documented “living statues,” and their counterparts can be found on street corners and parks of popular tourist destinations like Barcelona, New Orleans and Amsterdam. These days they have become quite a fixture in downtown Asheville.
Slathered in face paint and clad in attire of a single color, a human statue offers brief gifts of a song, drum roll or gesture in exchange for a tip. It might look easy, but there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this enigmatic art form. The most successful of such performers possess the unique ability to lure people without saying a word.
“Calendula” and “Rose” perform as a living statue duo referred to as “The Golden Girls” by their busking peers.“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘I wish I could get paid to stand around all day,’” says Rose. “I think those people don’t really get exactly what goes into it all. I think, on the whole, they probably don’t really respect street performance in general.”
To prepare for an appearance, Rose and Calendula adorn themselves in gold vintage gowns and hats, then apply gold body paint to their arms and faces — a transformation that can take up to an hour considering the time it takes to mend rips and prepare hair pieces. “Part of the art itself is that you are this character — this magical creature,” says Rose. “I enjoy doing this especially because I’m in disguise.”
On the street, the women pose beside each other. Tourists snap photos. As donations are dropped into their basket, they slowly shift their pose, scattering petals of their namesake flowers, and offering candy to children.
Both women work as artists when not in costume, and in the summer months they statue upward of 40 hours each week. Standing on boxes for five to nine hours at a time can be physically taxing, says Rose, but she has accustomed herself to the trance-like state required of her performance. It also helps to have a partner: “There’s something about having another person next to me that makes it easier,” says Rose. “The irritations are less bothersome.”
Another of Asheville’ statues, “Silver Drummer Girl,” has been making appearances on the Asheville streets for more than seven years. She’s often hired to appear at private parties and festivals, and earned “Best Busker” in last year’s Xpress readers’ poll. She even has a website (http://www.silverdrummergirl.com).
Dressed as a if she stepped out of a colonial-era fairy tale, Silver Drummer Girl poses with a snare drum. When given the opportunity she wields her sticks — often an indicator of how she’s feeling. A sharp smack on the rim might indicate annoyance, while a soft thrum may be a gesture of gratitude.
Learning how to read the crowds and control their behavior is a skill she’s honed over the years. “I know what limits I have now and what limits I should put up with,” she says. “Generally, the more seriously you take yourself, the more the crowd will.”
As is often the case, the more mischievious spectators might try to persuade a statue into breaking character through inappropriate comments or, in the worst cases, physical contact. “I try to make it interesting when that happens,” says Silver Drummer Girl. “Generally that just involves me standing there and watching the crowd watch the person, and how entertaining they are — to watch someone walk up to me, make faces at me, talk to me and I’m just not reacting. I kind of get a kick out of that as long as they’re not making me uncomfortable. If they are, I just drum really loud and that shocks them.”
According to Silver Drummer Girl, the transformation from a still statue to an animated character is what makes the art form so interesting. “Sometimes people will tip me, and I’ll drum for a minute and I’ll stop and they’ll say, “That’s all I get?” she says. “But I don’t think they’d really want me just standing here drumming all day. I don’t think they’d like that as much.”
— Ursula Gullow writes about art for Mountain Xpress and her blog, artseenasheville.blogspot.com.