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The Circus on a Cookie

In our family, we have a strong connection to the Circus. But not for the usual reasons. Not because we love the animals, or the amazing acrobatics, or the brilliant colors and lights. No, our family has a strong connection to the circus because of my grandfather, Howard Tibbals.

Haven’t heard of him before? I don’t doubt it; it’s not exactly a household name to the average American. But among a certain crowd– circus enthusiasts, that is– he’s very well known. Because of a few things, but mostly for this:


That’s his amazing, hand-crafted miniature circus. It began with his fascination with the trains and how everything was loaded, unloaded, put together and taken down in a matter of days. Everything had its place and went up like a well-oiled machine. As he worked on his train and circus, he expanded to including performers, animals, even moving acts under the Big Top. It’s on display in the Tibbals Learning Center at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, where you can see every incredible detail up close. The display cycles through night and day, so you can observe all the intricacies in the light and take in the atmosphere of the circus at night.

And that’s my Grandaddy. And he turned 80 last month. I wasn’t able to go to his birthday celebration, but my mom ordered some cookies to take to his party, so I was there in spirit. She asked for “something fun with a circus theme, but not childish.” So I decided to pull in some ideas: one, I’m quite certain the train is Grandaddy’s favorite part of the circus, so I wanted to recreate some of the cars and wagons; two, per Mom’s request, get the “80” cookies to have a vintage-style font; and three, show off the sophisticated side of the circus.

If you look at old, vintage circus posters, you’ll see that a lot of them had a beauty and elegance to them that doesn’t come across in modern circus posters. Two of the posters I selected are featured on the USPS circus stamp collection, which you can zoom in on to see up close here; the posters used in this stamp collection were used courtesy of my grandfather’s collection. Take a look at the artistry that went into those old posters and you’ll see what I was hoping to capture on these cookies. In order to do so, I had to use a watercolor technique with my food dyes. And without being able to sketch it out first, I was nervous about laying the first stroke of color on the pristine white icing!

The first ones I painted were the Big Bingo (elephant) cookies. There are a few errors that came from being nervous with this new medium, but after the first one I felt much more comfortable with continuing to the other cookies. And after doing the poster cookies, the phrases (“under the big top,” “step right up,” etc.) were much easier, as I wasn’t trying to match anything and I got to play with fun colors and watercolor splashes.

Doing watercolor on these cookies weren’t the only thing that made me a little nervous, though. These cookies were a first try on a new recipe: Brown Sugar cookies! And, my-oh-my, were they good!! After I sampled the first one out of the oven, my worries melted away. The brown sugar, spice, and hint of orange made for an absolutely delicious cookie, and they were even better once they were iced! They were at least as good as they looked, and take a look at how they turned out:


Above is a picture my mom sent me of the display she set out at the party.



The above three photos are comparisons of my cookies to the photo references I used of actual pieces in his collection. I used additional photo references, as well, but these are in one of the books about the collection that come from the gift shop at the Museum. The fourth are all the train cookies together.


The above three cookies were inspired by selections from actual circus posters, each of them hand-painted, then “aged” with petal dust and a little added sparkle from luster dust.


It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I’m particularly fond of the “Step Right Up” and Princess Victoria cookies. What do you think? Which are your favorites?

Thanks for reading!
And if you’re ever in Sarasota, FL, go take a tour at the Tibbals Learning Center at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Trust me, it’s worth the trip!


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