CLOWING AROUND

Dear Kevin,

I loved the letter you wrote about your recent weekend combination of ArtWalk and “Connect the Dots” event, designed to help raise people’s consciousness about global warming and its effects on life on earth.  It’s a very serious topic — what could be more serious? — but at the same time, if it is only approached from the point of view of super-seriousness, then people are easily turned off.  It is, in fact, by definition almost an overwhelming topic, one that’s both crushing and devastating. 

All that to say I thought your were right to inject a “clown person” into the mix.  The whole idea of clowns is, in fact, an interesting topic in itself.  It makes me think, for example, of the many ways that traditional American Indians incorporated clowns into some of their most sacred ceremonials.  I think that when non-Indians first saw this they were shocked and put off, even a little appalled.  The Western idea of the sacred seems to have no room for any kind of levity in it.  Which is odd, isn’t it?  I mean, who says that God has no sense of humor?  Anyway, I was surprised myself, I have to admit, when I first came to understand that clowns were an integral part of some of the most sacred AmerIndian ceremonials.  I wondered for a while why that might be.  Finally, it began to dawn on me that there were lots of reasons, and no doubt I only understand some of them. 

One of the things that occurred to me has to do with what I think of just as a lightening of the mood.  The “sacred” sounds awfully serious, and I suppose in a way it is.  Some people even find it frightening, especially when dance and masks are involved, and the playing of the drum, that mimicking of the heartbeat in all of us.  But people feel a bit of a load taken from their shoulders when the clowns arrive and they start making fun of everything — of themselves, of the people standing around watching, and even of the very ceremonials they’re part of.  They seem to have this ability to speak to people at some very basic, almost pre-cognitive level, and to say that it’s alright, it’s a good thing, to laugh in the face of that which is most serious, in the face of danger, maybe even in the face of death itself.  This, in turn, reminds me too of your wonderful painting “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny,” which you included a photo of attached to your letter.

One of the other roles that clowns take on in some of these ceremonials is to, in a sense, turn things upside down.  If the ceremony takes place in the summer, they might appear in full winter gear; and if it’s freezing out, they’ll dance around in very little clothing, complaining to everyone around about how hot it is.  It always seemed to me that this has something to do with realizing that our expectations about how things are, or how they should be, are so often not necessarily the case.  In other words, for example, you can pray to all the gods for an answer about some question or problem, and you will get an answer, but that answer may be very different from what you thought it would or should be.  It’s a way of getting out of our head and into some other place that is open to the unexpected and the magical.  It’s a way of saying: “Surprise me!  I want to laugh and to wonder.  I want to be amazed!” 

Your clown persona incorporated all of these things, I think, and a bunch more that I’m not clever enough to understand.  But it seemed to me that you played the “adult-child” in order to contribute to the opening of  people’s hearts (not just their minds) in a way that was funny and enjoyable.  I saw people laughing in the photos, and it’s good to laugh.  Even when things are serious.  Especially when things are serious.

So, congratulations to “Pretty Pretty Snowflake” on his clowning about matters that matter. In the realm of ritual and mythology, you come from a long, long line of such clown people.  As Leonard wisely said to us many years ago, somethings really are very serious, but in the end everything’s pretty damed funny.

Paul

MIRACLE — A Sense of Community

Dear Paul,

You know me… I’m an old hermit artist living deep in the woods, content to enjoy life communing with the wildflowers, trees, squirrels, bunnies, birds, fish and frogs. My chief failing as a human being must be that I don’t have a very high regard for my own species. I like the rest of the animal kingdom much better than Homo sapiens. In fact, I’d have to admit that I am brutally critical of my own kind. I find humanity so disappointing that I have largely withdrawn from social structures to commune with Nature. People can be so mean, selfish, brutal and stupid, engaging fully in denial and projection to rationalize their narrow-minded, self-centered goals and activities. And now the human race seems determined to so thoroughly spoil the miraculous gift of this planetary environment that it will no longer support life. It gives me no pleasure to admit my biases against society. I know the fault is more within me than in everyone else. I have a very long way to go to achieve even a modicum of social tolerance, let alone a first step toward Unconditional Love, which I am convinced is essential to self-realization.

 

Above: “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny!”      4 x 4 ft reverse painting on clear vinyl by Kevin, circa 1990 

So, it was with no small degree of misgiving that I approached this past weekend’s public First Friday and ArtWalk events in our art gallery downtown, featuring a gathering Saturday from 1 to 5 pm, called “Connect the Dots – Extreme Weather and Climate Change,” which was happening all over the world. For months I had been puzzling over how to talk about this subject in polite society, because it is so damn terminal and tragic that people run away screaming whenever the topic is raised. Very slowly it dawned on me that the impending apocalypse is not without humor – or at least it must be approached, in part, with humor, or nobody will survive it. You will remember that abstract painting I did so many years ago, entitled “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny!” You helped me analyze the raucously colorful, almost clownish painting, and we realized that there was a car crash, a child’s coffin, bureaucratic papers, and rigid dogmatism in the composition, but also a golden bridge crossing over into the Heart of the Universe. This is like that. I awoke Friday morning realizing that I would have to attend the next day’s event dressed as a clown and make a total fool of myself. I had transformed myself into the clown, Pretty Pretty Snowflake, several years ago to attend a Halloween party, and was surprised by the effect Snowflake had on the gathering. I realized that it was time to resurrect Pretty Pretty Snowflake and press him into service as “the climate change clown.” I was scared, but someone had to play the Fool at this funeral, and all signs pointed to me… obviously.

Yup… This is me as “Pretty Pretty Snowflake,” the climate change clown, standing in front of Robert’s paintings in our art gallery. Now… I’m fat… but I’m not THIS fat. Pretty Pretty Snowflake has expanded upon my natural amplitude with a strategically placed pillow in the front and in the back. One lady visiting our gallery kept saying “You have a BIG butt!” I thanked her profusely for the compliment and assured her that she did too.

Claudia, Susan, Pretty Pretty Snowflake, and Jerry, our great emcee and event organizer

For over a year now we have been inviting regional musicians, poets, dancers and performers into our art gallery every Third Friday for “Open Mic Music and Poetry Night.” A very high caliber of musicians and poets accepted our invitation and we have been getting to know them for a year. (It takes me a very long time to trust people.) At our “Connect the Dots – Extreme Weather and Climate Change” event on Saturday, all of these performers were so kind, accepting and tolerant of Pretty Pretty Snowflake, the annoying climate change clown. There was a wonderful half-hour dance workshop, and Zita, the leader, allowed me to muck things up for the first dance, perhaps to break the ice. Jerry, our fantastic emcee and organizer of the entire event, tolerated my heckling and even allowed me to play the slide whistle when his Streetbeets group performed. Their 85-year-old drummer, Paul, had the most touching response to my clowning. Every time he encountered me alone, he bowed and pranamed to me in an attitude of deep respect. On one such occasion he complimented me, “You are SO talented! You do so many things so well…” I cut him off with my clown voice, “And I’m PRETTY, too!” He bowed, pranamed, and walked away laughing. Other performers allowed me to dance and make irreverent comments as they attempted to underscore the urgency of the climate change emergency by entertaining the crowd in the gallery courtyard. I was increasingly moved by the message and the human tone of the event.

Streetbeets: (L-R) Paul, Jerry, & Marty. Jerry organized, and emceed the event while undergoing and recovering from double cataract surgery!

Above: Snowflake with folksinger/ guitarist Brian who opened the event.

Brian, a wonderful folk musician and guitarist, embraced me and could not stop laughing. Tim and Claudia and Susan laughed at me with wonder and appreciation in their eyes. Dave, a great flute-maker, guitarist and singer spent a long time talking to me after the event, even while I was transitioning slowly from Pretty Pretty Snowflake the annoying, but apparently lovable climate change clown, back to my normal grumpy, curmudgeonly personality as Kevin the misanthrope. While I was still speaking as a clown, I told him about how Robert and I had given a home to our new little doggy, Wardell, after someone threw him out of a car into a busy intersection. Dave had tears in his eyes as we talked about how doggies are actually “dog-people,” and how all animals have distinctly unique personalities when you get to know them. Dave showed me a photo of a huge painting his wife had made of her spirit guide, and it simply blew my red and white striped socks off! Gorgeous! He invited Robert and me to his talking group on his country property near us in a few weeks. We are going to go. He hosts sweat lodges and music events there and makes flutes, and studies the ways of the Native Americans.

 

Dave and Tim are such fine musicians and great guys. They closed the show. 

In the days leading up to the “Connect the Dots” event, I had made some 30 “dot” paintings on cardboard and canvas, to decorate the trees and grounds. These dots were between 18” and 30” in diameter. They were flowers, ferns or leaves, and all of them sported slogans, like “The Earth is Our Mother… And She’s Having Hot Flashes!” or “Carbon Emissions Are Death Farts! Stop Carbon Farts!” or “Are We Out of Our Frackin’ Minds? Stop Fracking Now!” I had been planning to just stack them up afterward and save them for another event some day, but the afternoon had changed me. I installed the entire set of dots in our art gallery as a display in the two main rooms. I was ready to engage – both with the cause and with these very fine people that I’d been holding off at an arm’s length for a year. Something about our “Connect the Dots” event connected me to them finally. Their love, kindness, intelligence, talent and tolerance burned a hole right through my armor, and they got into my heart. I trust them. I told Robert on the drive back home to the woods that I feel like we have found a community. After living for a very long time without a tribe, we have found our people. He agreed.

These are just some of the people who participated in “Connect the Dots — Extreme Weather and Climate Change” at our gallery, May 5th, 2012. The event was held in many locations around the world

Now, I don’t want you to worry… You will not see much of a change in me, if any. I’m not going to suddenly become a wild-eyed groupie or something. I am still the same grumpy old curmudgeonly hermit artist hiding in the woods. But now I know that there are some genuinely kind, reasonable, creative, intelligent souls living nearby, and that on some level we are a spiritual community of like-minded people. That’s a miracle… to me anyway. I never expected it. And there is another rather compelling development: There must be something to this “Connect the Dots” concept, because I feel a new sense of Hope. It’s not about connecting the dots of facts or information. It’s about connecting the people. Somehow, when a spiritual community of like-minded people achieves critical mass, mental miracles occur, and the result is a new feeling of Hope that we can make a difference. Today I am aware of a growing new belief that miracles can happen and we might be able to save the planet as a home for humanity and all life. I actually believe it might be possible. Anyway, we have to go for it – our house is on fire! What do we have to lose? Everybody grab a bucket and start dousing the flames! I was awake half of the night seeing paintings on the screen of my mind – big new rapid image paintings about Nature, Earth, and the Miracle of Spiritual Community. I have not been awakened by a show of new paintings going through my head for many months. This is very good. Miracles can happen. As your grandmother used to say, “See… God is good!”

Love, – Kevin