After years of working in circuses, acrobat Joe Fearn is bringing his techniques to the masses. Graham Young reports.
Success for many people always comes from spotting a gap in the market.
And so acrobat Joe Fearn has been importing ‘silks’ from the United States – ready to show people how to glide, swing, turn upside down and generally contort themselves in ways they might never have thought possible.
Thanks to Joe’s techniques, anyone can now be a circus star... in their own mind at least.
Learning how to control your body with silks is a bit like mixing gymnastics with origami. Except that you don’t have to be super-fit to do it. Just mentally agile to take it all in.
No wonder Joe reckons it’s a good way to relax, build confidence and inner strength.
‘Silksercise’ offers, quite literally, all the fun of the fair. Joe’s company even has an entertaining name – CircusMash. He operates inside the Creation Climbing Centre, a former factory with vast indoor climbing walls and skateboarding ramps in Moseley, Birmingham.
But he’ll also be working outdoors this weekend at an Art Soak event in nearby Cotteridge Park, where trees will provide the framework.
Art Soak is part of a community-based arts festival developed by Arts Forum Selly Oak, which runs from March 23-26 at venues across the city.
And for 28-year-old Joe the event will help with his ambition to develop circus arts in the Midlands.
“Until a couple of years ago, there were no courses around,” he says. “But it was always my intention to set something up and push the courses out to youths after starting with classes that were ‘overrun’ with adults.
“People are now starting to realise the benefits of circus skills.”
Special girders have been installed in the roof space of the climbing centre to enable Joe to suspend customers’ disbelief about their new talents.
“Children have a lot of strength and they don’t have as many fears as people who are older,” he says. “Once you’ve told them something three or four times, they have ‘got it’. With that attitude, everything is natural for them and confidence and self-esteem comes naturally, too.
“They throw themselves into it and it’s really nice to watch having experienced it. For adults, it’s all about teamwork too and safety rules within the teamwork.”
It strikes me that wrapping yourself around silks could be a dangerous activity for anyone not properly supervised and trained – and Joe agrees.
“Our techniques are designed to prevent anything (bad) from happening and you create an awareness of strength and how you can save yourself. We only work within the parameters of what people can get themselves out of.
“The peak years for working with silks is from 18 to 28, but there are people in their 50s still doing it and through corporate events the contemporary side of circus arts is getting really big and that’s where my interest lies.”
For Joe, the call to circus life came from within.
And, though unspoken, it almost sounds as if it was like he was drawn to joining the big top equivalent of the Foreign Legion.
Originally from Druids Heath and a former pupil at Baverstock School, Joe smiles broadly again when he says: “I left Birmingham when I was 18 and went on a foreign exchange.
“I knew I wanted to see the world and circus life is very family orientated and very welcoming... more so than you would think.
“I’ve worked in circuses across Europe and the US and Canada.
“I also went to circus school for two years in London, with Zippo’s own Academy of Circus Arts.”
Joe’s father is an engineer turned gardener, his mother a domestic assistant.
“My parents were always very supportive of my career choice,” says Joe. “As soon as my mum saw me in a show she completely changed her outlook and they are very proud of me now.
“My aim is to encourage people to learn these ‘impossible’ skills and to build up a sense of camaraderie and confidence. I get a lot out of that.”
As for the ‘silks’ it turns out they are not silk at all, but nylon.
Revealing one of his stage secrets brings another smile to Joe’s face.
“I get them from a specialist place in the US, where the material is wider than it is over here and that makes them much more comfortable.
“It’s cheaper for me to buy them there than from a fabric shop, but then you have the cost of delivery on top so you are looking at £130-£150 each.
“A ‘silk’ would ordinarily last about four years, but when people are using them every day it’s probably about a year before you have to replace them.”
CircusMash training includes trapeze, aerial hoop and hammock courses as well as silksercise. There are classes, fitness training, half and full day courses as well as school and private parties/ events.
Art Soak Diary
* Drawing the City, a workshop with University of Birmingham artist-in resident, Sarah Taylor Silverwood – Druids Heath Library, 10am-noon, 1pm-3pm.
* Premiere of Something Out of the Ordinary by Women in Theatre – Co-op Stirchley car park, 11.30pm, 1.30pm and 4pm.
* CBSO So Vocal Community Choir performance – Walkers Heath Park, 12pm. The choir has 100 members and a no-audition policy, so anyone interested in joining can turn up.
* Hinterland, a site specific installation by Tom Cahill-Jones of Stirchley Happenings constructed from materials reclaimed from local streets.
* Add your own memories of the area – from 1pm-6pm on the verge next to junction of Hunts Road and Hazelwell Lane, Stirchley.
* ‘Fades, Braids and Keeping It Real’, a new play written and performed by Birmingham-based Debbie Tracey – Headmasters hair salon, Cotteridge hair salon 6pm and 7pm.
* Silks in the Park – aerial silks workshop for all ages by Circus Mash, Cotteridge Park.
* Max Merrick Wren, singer songwriter at Leverton & Halls café, Maryvale Rd, Bournville, 11.30am.
* Pint Dreams by Tin Box Theatre, The British Oak, 3pm and 4pm.
* Selly Oak, Traces of the Past, Still Walking – join historian Ben Waddington on a 90-minute walk through Selly Oak. Meet at the University of Birmingham South Gates, Bristol Rd, at 2pm.
Art Soak 2013 is backed by Birmingham City Council, Lifford Business Association and is supported by public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. For the full programme visit: