Friday, December 9, 2011

Send in the clown paintings...

What do we talk about when we talk about clowns? Where to begin. Clowns are scary/sad/dark. Clowns are sinister/creepy/wrong. Shakes the Clown. Krusty the Clown. John Wayne Gacy. Clown paintings are trite; good-for-a-laff thrift shop art collected by kitsch-loving young hipsters before they move on to better things, like Howard Finster or Henry Darger. Unless you're Diane Keaton, who is a serious collector of clown paintings and even produced an odd coffee table book devoted to them back in 2002. (I know because I own it—it was sent to me by an eternally optimistic publicist back when I was editing the book page of a teen fashion magazine.)

I don't have a whole lot to add to the clown discourse; I did have a love-loathe relationship with a clown doll when I was a small child but I haven't let that poison my feelings toward clowns in general. I picked up this Walter T. Foster volume devoted to Clowns and Characters because, as previously noted, I'm a total sucker for these art-instruction manuals. And what I find especially compelling about this book are the "characters" who get lumped in with the clowns. Basically, a character is a person who isn't white. You'll have to take my word for it because I didn't scan the pictures that best illustrate this point—the colors weren't as vivid—but there's a portrait of a handsome young black guy with an intense gaze, a young black woman called "Cuban Girl" and another called "Woman of Morocco." Below, you have this ginger-haired gentleman tricked out five different ways—a pirate, a clown, a Mexican, an extra from Lawrence of Arabia, a Sikh...such crazy characters!

When dealing with a run-of-the-mill white person, like the middle-aged woman below, it is advisable that the artist accessorize:

Dress up the model in costume, using accessories from the attic trunk. The costume will take the model out of the ordinary class of portraits. Express a few important folds or creases with conviction. This will get you by. (More artists have committed suicide over drapery than anything else.) Paint the drapery in one shot, or keep it tentative until sure. Play it cool. Save all your emotions and passions for the wind-up.

Yikes, in addition to being racist, folks were pretty flippant about suicide back in the 50s/60s, or whenever this was published (it's not dated but it's obviously midcentury). Alas, the Walter T. Foster company no longer publishes the time capsule that is Clowns and Characters; it's been replaced by more timely subject matter like Manja and NASCAR.

Gracing the back cover of the book is the lovely young woman below. I thought for sure she was going to be called "Gypsy Girl" but it turns out she is "Italian girl" (the lack of big gold hoop earrings and a do-rag should've indicated that she wasn't part of a caravan). On the preceding page is a black-and-white portrait of a pensive blonde, her hands folded demurely on her lap. That portrait is called "Beverly"—and she's the only "character" with a name.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Like many children of the ’70s who enjoyed the richly varied curriculum of a public middle school, come 7th grade my elective choices were two: Home Economics or Shop. I don't think anyone dared to cross the gender divide, myself included, so I never got the chance to make a cheese board in the shape of a mouse. Instead I got to make English muffin pizzas under the tutelage of a woman whose black beehive 'do topped the black polyester vest-and-pants ensembles she made herself. She also taught me how to sew on an actual sewing machine. I made a wraparound skirt with a red floral print, and a navy blue polo shirt with a white collar that I thought was pretty freaking stylish.

Despite that promising beginning—they were both dimly recognizable as clothing—I never touched a sewing machine again. But I can reasonably manage the basics of hand-stitching—you know, sewing a button that's destined to fall off; mending a small hole in a seam that will reopen soon after. So it's possible—possible—that I might one day sew the patches I invariably pick up at thrift stores and estate sales onto my clothes or my kids' clothes. If my kids would let me. Both of them have an aversion to denim (too hot!) or "dungarees" as I still like to call them, so it's more likely I could sew the patches onto the old blanket-lined denim jacket that I've held on to since childhood and have previously celebrated in print here. I rarely wear it on account of it not being terribly flattering (some things just don't hang the same as they did back when I was 13) but maybe a few more patches would do the trick. (Here is my exact jacket; apparently it is "rare.") This jacket belonged to my brother before me, and he covered it with his own patches (I distinctly remember one in the shape of a leaf that said "Leaf me alone"). The jacket was came to him via the five brothers of the Taylor family who lived across the street. Each wearer embellished the jacket to his own taste, and ripped off the patches before handing it down.

When I got the jacket, I sewed a Rolling Stones tongue on the back and covered the rest of it with my button collection. Which makes me wonder what the hell happened to my button collection?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hometown heroine: Carol Burnett

Was Carol Burnett funny? I'm not being snide; it's just that I'm old enough to remember when she was a TV star but young enough not to have gotten her shtick. I think her sidekick Tim Conway made a bigger impression. He was the guy who shuffled around on his knees pretending to be a dwarf, wearing a toga and playing a golf, right? Am I making that up? If I am, don't disabuse me—I like to think there was a guy in a toga shuffling around on his knees playing golf.

Anyway, the reason I bring up Carol Burnett is not to evaluate the quality of her comedy (didn't Chris Hitchens already more or less settle the question by decreeing that women aren't funny?) but to highlight yet another aspect of San Antonio's adorable small-town nature. Despite being the seventh largest city in the U.S. (no one back east ever believes it when I trot out this stat), San Antonio has but a scant few home-grown celebs to call its own. I get it—San Antonio is not NYC, replete with famous and soon-to-be-famous folks, or L.A., where you can be idling at a red light, and glance over at the car beside you and see Tom Cruise at the wheel—yes, that happened to me). It's not Chicago, with its Obama and Al Capone, or Boston with its Marky Mark...

No, it's San Antonio, with its Eva Longoria (but she's really from Corpus Christi), its Tommy Lee Jones (who's been overheard loudly kvetching at restaurants about how gossipy and provincial San Antonians can be), its Jackie Earle Haley (think he just moved here because his wife is a native), syndicated newspaper columnist Heloise (can't quibble with that), and Carol Burnett, who resided here for a very brief spell in the early 1930s. Carol lived with her grandma in an adorable Victorian cottage downtown but moved to Hollywood when she was seven. The house is a tourist attraction—one that was almost razed by a local BBQ chain to make room for a parking lot a few years ago. Caving to public outcry, the BBQ chain donated the house to a nonprofit run by Henry Cisnernos (okay—he's a San Antonio celebrity of sorts as well); they chopped it up and moved it a few blocks away and now run a Head Start program out of it.

All this being a very long wind-up to my saying that it wasn't a big surprise to see Carol Burnett: What I Want to Be When I Grow up at a local library sale, to know that at some point back in the 70s, someone from San Antonio bought this book for their kid because Carol is one of our few hometown heroines. The book itself is very much in the spirit of the year it was published, 1975—it reminds me of the Harry Belafonte and Marlo Thomas duet in Free to Be You and Me... ("Mommies are people, people with children..."). As the bookjacket states:

Sexist stereotypes are ignored—indeed anyone can be anything at all, from pizza maker to astronaut, from karate instructor to accountant, as these warm and lighthearted photographs of Carol prove.

Carol wears a peculiar unitard in all of the pictures, which, discordantly, brings to mind an image of another ’70s comic—Woody Allen, as an anxious sperm in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex. In 1975, I was 7 years old, ostensibly the target audience for Carol's book. I don't think I would have found it too entertaining, though. Maybe if Tim Conway had done it...

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