November 27, 2021

Local artists give Little York circus wagons a family feel

Getting a mother’s touch

Photos by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Ashley Pearson of Cortland examines her signature Tuesday on her giraffe mural on the side of the circus wagon at Dwyer Memorial Park in Little York. Her son, Elliott Davis, 5, looks on.

Ashley Pearson and Jennah Lenae used to hunt for turtles at Dwyer Memorial Park when they were in the second grade.

They never found any.

“We totally caught crawfish here,” said Lenae, of Tully.

The two women, both 2002 Homer High School graduates who studied art under Rona Knobel and Paul Andre, are now full-time artists.

They found themselves back at Little York Lake in the fall and this summer, painting animal murals on two circus-like wagons at the Route 281 park.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Pearson, of Cortland, owner of Cheerful & Creative art studio on Main Street, of the outcome. “Better than expected.”

Lenae painted a gorilla, elephants, a mouse and seal on one wagon.

“The seal, my 9-year-old daughter designed: ‘Mom, I want you to do it like this,’” the girl, Ayla, said. Lenae painted her version.

Jennah Lenae of Tully puts her signature on the family-friendly mother and baby gorilla mural on a revamped wagon.

Pearson painted a peacock, mother and baby bears and mother and baby giraffes, and a zebra. She also hid 17 mice on her circus wagon.

They returned Tuesday to sign their work on the wagons, one of many upgrades to the grounds pushed by county Legislator Linda Jones, R-Homer, who corralled volunteers, free construction labor and donations to restore the two wagons.

“I love it,” Jones said. “I am amazed. It’s wonderful when I come to the park and see people taking pictures … seeing kids giving the animals names.”

The last wagons had animals painted on them in 1974 and they lasted until 2019, Jones said. Lenae’s carriage, behind the pavilion, had a gorilla, black panther and a mouse that she covered over. Pearson’s carriage near the entrance of the parking lot, had a lion on one side and a white bear on the other.

“Linda Jones asked us if we could help restore these,” Lenae said. “We both were really excited to do that. They wanted a circus theme. … And we went with a mommy theme … a baby and mom animal, to keep the family (focus) that is the park.”

The pair started painting in the fall and got a few weeks in before the weather turned cold and wet. They resumed in May and completed their murals in July.

“The biggest challenge was the height, finding 10-foot ladders and scaffolding,” Lenae said. “Other than that it was a good experience, to have had people come up and tell you the history of the park. It was nice. Usually, I’m by myself.”

Lenae has a studio at home but also works with Pearson at her studio, which offers painting classes.

Lenae went to Daemon College in Buffalo and Pearson to SUNY Cortland.

“We actually didn’t see each other for 10 to 15 years,” Lenae said. “I was out front at my mom’s house and (Pearson) drove by. ‘I just bought a studio, do you want to help,’” Pearson said to her.

Lenae agreed.

Pearson said she concentrated on highlights and shadows in her work. Lenae eyed making her animals drawn to scale. It’s one thing to make an 8-by-10 painting. But turning it into a 37-foot “canvas” — that’s a challenge, she said.

Jones said Kennedy Hardwood in Preble donated the lumber on the restored wagons. There’s about $700 in paint, bought with donated money. The roof labor was donated by Goddard Roofing, with about $600 in materials there. And four carpenters donated labor. The artists donated their work, too.

Diane Tennant of Cortlandville supplied a meal to workers while they were on site. And that was minuscule on her part, she said. But she’s proud her family will refurbish a stone fireplace at the park, which is important to the Tennants.

“There is a third wagon the highway department found me,” Jones said.

Next year, that will be restored by volunteers and artist Crystal Lyon of Homer, who did the mural at the Cortland Corset Building. It will feature Cortland County.

“She’s got plans in her head how she will do it,” Jones said.