Written by Stacy Roibal // Graphic by Cooper Turman
Dr. Michael Claxton is a professor of English, a narrative columnist for The Bison, a published author and a self-proclaimed terrible magician. He has had a fascination with performance magic as an art form since he was a kid, but since discovering he was no good, he has done a lifetime of influential research and writing on the lives of these performers.
More specifically, Claxton has had an interest in telling the stories of female magicians.
“When you think of a magician, you usually think of a man, and when you think of the woman in the magic show — you think of this person who gets sawn in half or otherwise mistreated in an illusionary way, or the lady handing the doves to the magician or looking pretty on stage,” Claxton said.
As it turns out, there are quite a few women who have been the star of their own magic show, but their stories are not always preserved or told. Because of this, Claxton said it’s been part of his life’s work to recapture some of these stories.
Since he was 14, Claxton has been building up an impressive collection of various props, books, posters, photos, scrapbooks and letters of magicians. The majority of his collection is arranged in his home, which is lovingly referred to as his museum.
It all began with a collection of things from a vintage store that belonged to a family of Black magicians from the Carolinas named the Armstrongs.
When Mr. Armstrong passed away, his daughter Ellen Armstrong took over their magic show, and for many years she was the only female Black magician in the United States. Claxton recently filmed a few interviews for a documentary on the Armstrong family and gave the directors access to all the material he has collected on the family.
Claxton hosted a movie screening at his home on March 17, which was attended by students and professors primarily from the English Department. He conducted tours of his home museum for those in attendance.
Sophomore Magdalene Pruitt was there and said that she hadn’t realized the novelty of a female magician until Claxton began telling them all about the lives and journeys of these women.
“I learned more about the plight of magicians in that half an hour than I have in 20 years of being alive,” Pruitt said.
Claxton is currently working with the website Magicana to create an online exhibition about women in magic. Magicana is an arts organization devoted to explorating and advancing magic as a performing art.
“For over two decades, Magicana has been steadily building a body of work aiming to forward the art of magic,” the website reads. “Our mission: Sharing Wonder.”
Claxton’s work has been featured on the site a number of times over the years.
The foundation for this exhibition goes back to 2006 when Claxton began publishing a monthly series of articles for the journal of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. The collection was called “Women in Magic A-Z” and contained 26 articles on female magicians whose last names corresponded with the letters of the alphabet.
Claxton said his series got a lot of positive feedback, and a few years later he was approached by a friend who works for Magicana about turning the series into an online exhibition. The goal was to create something that could be interactive, a place for people to go online and find information on these female performers.
The exhibition is titled “A Magical Constellation,” as it is about the different stars of the performing universe. Claxton is currently working on updating the 26 articles and adding a list of every American female magician, both past and present, under their respective letters.
Claxton sees all this as an opportunity to rescue some stories that could otherwise be lost and to celebrate the contributions that women have made to this particular art form. The exhibition is not live yet, but Claxton hopes to have it completed by the end of the year.