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Conventional Wisdom: World Clown Association

An inside look at the wonky world through photographer Arthur Drooker's lens

by David Graver in Culture on 07 April 2014

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Just putting on an oversized, colorful suit and slapping on some makeup does not a clown make. There's a deep understanding of comedy, coupled with zany performance abilities and an acceptance that the role is a historic one. The roots of clowning go back centuries; they've been spokespeople for brands, much-loved television presenters—and some have been feared. Situated at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois, photographer Arthur Drooker delved into the annual gathering of the World Clown Association (WCA), continuing a quest to capture the best and most spirited conventions nationwide for a book project dubbed Conventional Wisdom. We took an inside look at fetishes and Abraham Lincoln, we've fallen for Broniess and ventriloquists. Now, Conventional Wisdom turns its lens upon clowns.

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Over 200 clowns arrived for this 32nd annual WCA convention, with some "hailing from as far away as Japan, India, and England," Drooker tells CH. While they slap, slip, trip, fall and fling pies at each other—all in good fun—Drooker reminds us the convention as a whole aims to help clowns hone their performance skills. "Workshops offered tips on body movement and facial expression ('don’t perform your character, live it'), make-up ('less is more') and physical comedy ('timing is crucial')," Drooker observers. Of equal importance, "There was even a workshop on 'fear-free' clowning that showed how to assure those afflicted with coulrophobia—yes, fear of clowns has its own term." There, clowns were taught to, “Make everything fun, touchable and friendly."

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In addition to the classes and ensuing camaraderie, each day incorporated a clowning competition "ranging from balloon-making and face painting to skits and paradability" Drooker says, defining paradability as a competition where, "clowns had thirty seconds to do a routine while moving forward from a starting point to a finish line, passing a judge's table and an audience on both sides." Observing the sheer concentration of clowns all strutting along, chaotic yet uniform, lead to Drooker's realization that clowning actually is a performance art, and that "being professionally silly is a serious business." As he dug deeper, an acknowledgement that "most of these clowns work alone, entertaining kids at birthday parties, seniors at assisted living facilities and terminally ill patients in hospitals," contributes great value—from a smile to a moment, it's something different in the face of regularity. "It’s a hard way to make a living and few do. Many volunteer. But being a clown has never been about the money."

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As he has noted at previous conventions, commerce factors in once more. "The vendor floor offered the latest in clown couture, props and cosmetics." Inspired, Drooker crossed the threshold from observer to participant. "I yielded to temptation by purchasing a red nose and having my face painted by JT 'Bubba' Sikes, makeup artist extraordinaire." Upon his transformation from photographer to tramp, Drooker "cackled like a five-year-old." While done up, Drooker explored the floor and found himself struck by clown shoes: "To see such super-sized, hallucinogenic footwear up close gave me new appreciation for the imagination and craftsmanship that go into creating these hightop, lowbrow shoes. Perhaps one day they will be considered collectible art." This sensation contributed to an environment of the extraordinary, one that Drooker not just indulged, but respected.

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Two notable guests offered further insight into the world Drooker stepped into. "Clowning comes from the heart,” he heard Deanna “DeeDee” Hartmier, the WCA president share. “Every clown here has a passion for what they do. They like giving back to the community. They love putting smiles on peoples’ faces.” Later, featured performer Barry “Grandma” Lubin—a highly awarded clown and inductee into the International Clown Hall of Fame—shared a truth that Drooker believes served as the slogan for the convention: “Clowning’s not for kids, it’s for everybody.” In this series, Drooker's images inspire; capturing an eclectic group of like-minded individuals simply attempting to make others happy.

Cool Hunting was invited to follow Arthur Drooker behind the scenes as he continues to survey and photograph conventions around the US. All images in this ongoing series are by Arthur Drooker.

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