Professor's art lands on cover of latest album by Norah Jones and friends

Art professor Marie Roberts' sideshow art banner appears behind The Little Willies on the cover of their new album, "For the Good Times." The band includes: Norah Jones, Lee Alexander, Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian and Dan Rieser. (Photo courtesy of EMI Records)

By Kenna Caprio

She may have “grown up” with sideshow and carnival culture, but for FDU art professor Marie Roberts, having her artwork featured on the cover of the latest album from Norah Jones’ side project The Little Willies might just be her strangest experience yet.

“My whole family spoke carnie at home,” Roberts says. So when Roberts opened an issue of the New York Times in the early 1990s and saw that Dick Zigun was planning to open a sideshow at the Coney Island Circus and needed a banner painter, she suggested that her students take on the project. “A group of students and I created 27 sideshow banners for 1997 season,” she says. She’s been painting banners for the sideshow for 15 years now, and gets to “decorate the whole building,” she says.

Not long ago, during a conversation with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow house manager, Roberts found out that The Little Willies — which features Jones and four musician friends — decided to shoot a music video in front of the sideshow’s building. Their music is a blend of rock, jazz and country vibes. “They were shooting all day and had beautiful shots on the boardwalk and on the street,” Roberts says.

She didn’t consider the shoot much though, even when she had to sign a release for her artwork to appear, but ended up having her artwork serve as the backdrop on the group’s “For the Good Times” album cover. The album “dropped,” or was released, in early January 2012.

“I’m not from a fancy neighborhood. I was watching TV when Norah Jones won her first Grammy… I can’t tell you what it’s like to see my art on the cover of her album,” says Roberts.

On the album cover, the four male band members including Lee Alexander, Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian and Dan Rieser hold Jones horizontal and aloft in front of Roberts’ banner. The banner is the backdrop for the main stage theater and the painted acrylic on canvas measures 12 feet by 24 feet.

“If you come to the sideshow, that’s what the performers perform in front of,” says Roberts. It’s one of the first banners she ever painted and it showcases “ten acts for the price of one admission.”

Though this is the first time Roberts’ sideshow banner work appears on an album cover, it’s no stranger to a wide national audience. Featured in a “Cake Boss” episode, “Freaks, Fast Food & Frightened Frankie,” Roberts’ paintings were used as artwork on a special cake for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. That episode of the popular TLC reality series, which follows baker Buddy Valastro and Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, originally aired on November 30, 2009.

Despite her work being featured on national television and highlighted on an album cover, Roberts’ main focus is on teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson and on continuing to create her own art.

“I wanted to teach in a college setting because I think that the responsibility of a college professor in addition to teaching is (to keep doing your own work) and bring that back to the classroom,” Roberts says.

Some of the classes Roberts teaches on Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan campus in Teaneck include: painting, watercolor painting, general drawing, life drawing and alternative art. “I strongly believe in drawing, it’s really a part of what I do and care about,” she says.

Drawings form the base of all of Roberts’ own work, including the banners she has created for the sideshow.

“I fell in love with the genre,” she says of the sideshow art.

"I wanted a life where I would make art all the time," she says. So instead of joining the sideshow, Roberts says she "ran away and became a painter."

This cake, created by "Cake Boss" star Buddy Valastro, also features Marie Roberts' sideshow banner art. The episode, "Freak, Fast Food and Frightened Frankie," originally aired on TLC on November 30, 2009.

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