A massive, handpainted canvas hangs in the window of the Riffe Gallery, beckoning passersby - as it once did on festival midways - to come see the "human pincushion."

A massive, handpainted canvas hangs in the window of the Riffe Gallery, beckoning passersby - as it once did on festival midways - to come see the "human pincushion."

The man's nose and tongue are pierced with metal rods. A blue circle in the corner shouts, "alive!"

"The building has never seen the likes of the human pincushion until now," Riffe Gallery director Mary Gray said, laughing. "We thought it would be a great idea to put it on the outside - people would be coming in going, 'What is happening in there?' "

Gallery-goers can experience both the bright lights and behind-the-scenes aspects of the circus in "Sawdust & Spectacle," which runs through April.

Under-the-big-top dioramas created by artist Sonny King are among the most engaging, smile-inducing pieces. Thirteen of the small-scale works are on display around the gallery space, inviting viewers to take a peek inside the world of the circus.

King based the 3D displays - complete with tightrope walkers, mouths-agape audience members and colorful spotlights - on his experience spending summers with his father, a lion tamer with a 1950s traveling circus in Australia.

"The people he created, he knows them by name," said curator Sara Johnson. "It's fun to see - not just the performers, but the faces on the audience. It must still be fresh in his mind."

Ohio has a rich history with the traveling circus, Johnson said, especially in Portsmouth. That's where "Sawdust & Spectacle" first opened in the fall at the Southern Ohio Museum.

"They have community members who put on a circus and take classes in aerobatic exercises," Gray added. "Young people and adults do it."

In fact, it was Portsmouth-born painter Clarence Carter's behind-the-scenes paintings and photos that first inspired Johnson to put together the exhibit.

She'd just finished reading "Water for Elephants" - Sara Gruen's tale of the downtrodden circus life - as she began her search for a show to celebrate the Southern Ohio Museum's 30th anniversary.

Johnson gathered the works Portsmouth had to offer and then added pieces from institutions and collections from across the state (and some from outside Ohio).

"I love the idea of having an exhibit that's about something more universal - but the traveling circus did have a lot of its play throughout Ohio," she said.

Johnson will lead a tour of the exhibit at noon on Feb. 24. After its stay in Columbus, the show moves on to Massillon.

Under the spotlight

A few of the pieces you'll find in "Sawdust & Spectacle"

"Lionel, Dog Faced Boy"

This photograph and others showcase the far-from-PC sideshow acts that often beckoned from midways. During the exhibit's stay in Portsmouth, Johnson had a lawyer speak about what would have been illegal today. "And it's almost everything."

Paul Travis, "Circus Detour"

The chaos depicted in this painting of a circus train accident was sometimes very real, including at least one documented wreck that's explained on a placard next to the piece. "It's usually just straight out, 'Here's the art,' " Johnson said, "but I couldn't do that with this one. I wanted to share some of these stories."

Yeteve Smith, "Harlequin"

A colorful costume contrasts with the entertainer's solemn stare. "Sawdust & Spectacle" has a mix of bright circus scenes and showy signage alongside paintings that reveal the big top's more somber underbelly.