Art in the Public Square

Grace, seven years old at the sculpture honoring Mayor Elizabeth Wilson. (Used with Grace’s permission)

Grace, seven years old at the sculpture honoring Mayor Elizabeth Wilson. (Used with Grace’s permission)

June 27

In my post on June 15, I mentioned the monuments at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There was a story about these monuments in the June 27 edition of the AJC. Dekalb County is in the process of accepting its monument from the memorial. You can read it here

We need more art, more monuments, sculptures/art which reflect who we are as a society. This artistic expression also comments on how we see our past. Let's remove the Confederate monuments that litter our country. We have an opportunity to look back on our history and reflect on that history with today's values. Remove the monuments put there to honor the confederacy and install monuments which reflect the struggles of the Jim Crow era. 

We have an excellent example of high art/sculpture in our town square that reflects who we are now.  There is a sculpture in the Decatur square honoring Mayor Elizabeth Wilson. She was the first African-American Mayor of Decatur. Her focus was on educating young people. 

Several years ago, I went on a field trip with my daughter's elementary school class to the square in Decatur. Mayor Wilson was there to tell the students about her time as mayor. The sculpture is of a spinning globe. Around the globe are children, girls, and boys of different races. This statue reflects Decatur's focus on children, the power of education, and diversity. 

The sculpture honoring Mayor Wilson's is about 200 feet from the confederate monument in the square. Hopefully, someday we can have a town square free from the confederacy. We can have more art which reflects who we are now and with a memorial that honors those killed during Jim Crow. 

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Lost Keys and Talking Heads

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"You have a big smile on your face. What are you thinking about?" Marcia, my wife asked me as I walked down the driveway of our house. I told her I was looking for the keys to the Honda. The keys I was holding didn't look familiar. So I thought to myself, "These are not my keys...These are not my keys". 

This thought made me think of the lyric, "this is not my beautiful house .." from the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime. It was my reaction that Marcia saw. Thinking of this song made me smile.

I remember hearing this song thirty-four years ago when I was in Hawaii. I had just finished  a tour of Japan with a performance company after my junior year in college. On the way back from Japan, we went to Honolulu. While we were there, one of the band members insisted that we see this movie. I had no idea what I was getting into. 

The movie was Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads. I remember sitting in this movie theater and being amazed at what was on the screen. It was a big screen. The images were huge.  (If you ever watch this film watch it on the biggest screen with the best sound system you can find.)  There was a mix of music, light design, energetic band members, and set design that overwhelmed me. The lighting effects of the movie reminded me of the lighting designs of Adolphe Apia, which I was studying in college. The music in the film reminded me of the electronic/synthesizer classes I had taken. The contrast of light and dark and shadow mixed with energy and dance music left an indelible impression on me. 

 I was thinking of this as I stood in my driveway, looking for the keys to my Honda CRV thinking, these are not my keys ...these are not my keys. I remember my reaction to this film so well. I remember how it made me feel, how it made me think, how it influenced my thought of what art can do.


It's that kind of reaction that I strive to create in my work. I'm one clown working in a different medium. That said, it's still the reaction I want.
I did find my keys. They were in my hand the whole time.

Same as it ever was...

Civil Rights Trail tour.

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Marcia, Grace, and I went on a trip to Alabama last week. We visited the locations on the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama. We started at the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. From there we went to Selma, to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We finished the trip in Montgomery. While in Montgomery, visited the church where Martin Luther King was a pastor. We also visited The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial, created by the Equal Justice Initiative. 

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is dedicated to the legacy of lynching and racial terrorism during the Jim Crow era. There are 800, six foot monuments.  Each county with a documented case of lynching or terroristic killing is represented. All of the counties in metro Atlanta have a monument there. Each monument is suspended in the air, symbolically recalling a lynching.  The sight of these hanging monuments is tragic, beautiful and somber. 

Earlier that day, we went to the Legacy Museum, also created by the Equal Justice Initiative. This museum tells the story of racial inequality from the  slave trade to our current prison industry. 

I know how Jim Crow laws created two separate rules for Blacks and whites in society. That said, It was striking to seeing how the museum displayed these rules that were written into law, making it official government policy. These laws reached into the world of art and entertainment. There were several laws written to keep blacks and whites separated as performers on stage and separated in the audience as they watched a show. I am a professional clown, this one about circuses got my attention. 

Louisiana required circuses to maintain separate, racially segregated tents ... 15 La. Gen. Stat. § 9791 (1939)

The museum conceptualizes how the legacy of the middle passage, slavery, and Jim Crow era lingers with us. 

"History is not the past.

It is the present.

We carry our history with us.

We are our history.

If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals."

James Baldwin.

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New Medical Clowning Book

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Tiffany Riley has written a book about medical clowning. I’m pleased to say that she decided to include an essay I wrote in her book, Beyond the Red Nose – The Serious Business of Healthcare Clowning.


 I have been doing medical clowning for 19 years.  In the essay, I write about an encounter I had with a patient over 15 years ago. I have no memory of this clown visit. However, the mother of the patient remembers the visit well. You can get my essay, along with the rest of Tiffini‘s book here.  https://laughterleague.org/shop/book.

A Grateful Heart

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I was strumming my ukulele as I walked through the hospital.  One of my clown partners was with me singing along to the music. As we were traveling down the hallway, I noticed a woman with a subtle look of confusion on her face. She mentioned a room number and asked where that room was. She said she was familiar with the hospital but was not familiar with the unit where we were. We gave her the directions to the room. 

Then, she looked at me and said, "I remember you singing songs to my daughter. She was here five years ago.", She paused, "I remember you singing to her," she repeated. 

There was a sense of peace and grace in her manner. She told several stories of the music we played for her child. She told us about the jokes we told her daughter.  The child remembered these jokes and used them at home. The memories of these experiences were fresh in her mind. She reached into her pocket to take out her phone. She showed us pictures of her daughter, some of them as a patient in the hospital; other pictures were of a seemingly healthy child at a baseball game.

Then she told us her daughter passed away. 

She said she was grateful for the work we did with her child. I remember standing with her receiving all of this, the stories, the pictures. There was a sense of acceptance as she shared this with us. 

Our time is finite. We all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. What can give our lives meaning is our time spent with our loved ones.

I'm grateful she told us we were a small part of their story. 

Clown Phobia and Baseball

I was hired by Liquid Sky Entertainment to perform at The Battery outside SunTrust stadium before Braves home baseball games. I've had a lot of fun working with the artist there.

Clown phobia is an issue at the baseball stadium too. I'm performing as a clown. I'm even wearing a big red nose while I perform, something I don't usually do in the hospital. In this environment, I've been aware of how the same dynamic is real regarding clown phobia. Some people have expressed a fear of clowns. That said, I've always found a willing and eager audience at the baseball stadium.  Most of the better interactions I've had are with young children. It's not hard to find a child who wants to play. Juggling has been my primary skill in the work. Often I will see a child who wants to juggle and have fun.  This makes my job easier. When the child is laughing and having fun, you can almost guaranty that the adults are enjoying themselves too. 

I have met a few people who are afraid of clowns. It's usually pretty easy to avoid these people, after all, if they really are so scared, they will avoid me. Some people are on the fence. They might want to see me, or they might not. Many of these people can be won over, but I have to earn it. I can usually do a hat or juggling trick for them. If I continue to see that they don't like me, then I just move on. As I mentioned earlier, it's not hard to find a willing audience. There's no point in wasting my time trying to win someone over who clearly doesn't want to see me. I'm sure that someone else will want to see me.

As usual, most of the people who express a clown phobia are teenagers. They tend to be self-conscious of their image. Often this is a binary dynamic with teens. Either they flat out don't want to be seen with you, or they think clowns are cool. The best practice is to meet your audience where they are.  Pay attention to how they behave when they see you. Are they looking at you with a big smile on their face, full of expectation about what might happen next? If so, then proceed with your best clown material to meet that expectation. If however, they are slow to receive you and seem to be uninterested, then try something that doesn't demand their participation. Maybe something they can watch from a distance. Allow them the opportunity to warm up to you. Acknowledge their feelings everything from their excitement to their apprehension.

At these baseball games, my props have been my bowler style juggling hat, bean bags, clubs, baseball bats. Those things and of course my clown nose. 

The Musical Clown

Pictured with Vincenzo Tortorici celebrating the Ten Year Aniversary of The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Children's Health Care of Atlanta in 2011.

Pictured with Vincenzo Tortorici celebrating the Ten Year Aniversary of The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Children's Health Care of Atlanta in 2011.

I had a great day working in the hospital today. My partner was Reuben Haller, who like me is a musician. Working with Reuben got me thinking about the different ways we use music as clowns in our work in the hospital.

 I've come to see that most of the music by clowns fits under two different styles.  One is an approach that is atmospherical, more prone to be improvised. The second is more structured and routine based.

Here's how these musical approaches effects hospital clowning. 

Atmospherical Music

A lot of my hospital closing work involves music. One of my favorite things to do is to play music as I'm traveling the halls of the hospital. I play catchy, upbeat music. Recently I've been playing some bossa nova tunes. This music serves as a way of introducing ourselves to those around us. I discussed this dynamic in a previous clown fear post on my blog here.

Sometimes we use the term "Musical wash "to describe this. We may travel through an area playing music as we go. It doesn't have to be an actual song; it could be a riff or a tune without words.

 I was working with a clown partner who said that she always felt like she had her own personal musical score as she worked with me. I think this best describes this atmospheric approach of music. I often think of this as a way of musically scoring the dramatic action of our work in

the same way that a composer scores a movie.  Depending on the artistic choice the music may heighten or lower the tension. Various musical approaches can introduce a character or comment on the action as it's happening or anticipate a change of tone. I especially like this style because it makes the music a separate artistic element used to compliment another creative factor. 

Music as a routine

The other form of music which I see in our work is quite different from atmosphere. This form presents the music strictly as a standalone presentation. It's as if you are  present this song by saying, "I am going to play a song for you." You play the song. And you close by saying, "Now I am done with playing this song." This musical approach makes the music itself much more of a standalone routine, in the same way that a magic trick may be presented. At times, I like using songs in this approach as material for this method. One of the ways of doing this is to make the introduction, performance, and close of the song an actual routine onto itself. As with any other type of standalone routine, this approach may take more rehearsal and setup time to create. That said, I've seen this approach work well for a performer who might not be comfortable in a more improvised musical approach mentioned earlier. I've seen many new clowns who are drawn to this approach because it can be rehearsed with planned dramatic beats in the routine. The rehearsal aspect can make some clowns feel "safer" performing this way.

I've found it useful to know which approach you are taking musically. With either of these styles, it's best to be very comfortable with the instrument you're playing and the music you are presenting. Any performance environment will have distractions. The hospital will provide even more distractions with medical staff and family. There is no substitute for truly knowing the musical material and knowing your instrument well. I have seen some musicians, myself included, make a mistake of playing content before it was ready.   Whichever approach you use atmospherical or routine make sure you know your material well.  

Fear of clowns #3 - A solution.

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Fear of clowns #3 - A solution.

In my previous post about clown fears, I talked about ways of dealing with Coulrophobia, fear of Clowns.

Now it's time for the solution. In my experience, the best way to address this problem is to use whatever skills you have to make your audience laugh, give them something interesting to see, provide them with music that will make them want to sing. The best way to address this issue is with an artistic approach. More importantly, a creative challenge. The best approach is to prove your worth as an entertainer.

Make them laugh. Give them a reason to say, WOW! Give them music that will make them want to dance.

I have seen some clowns who expect their audience to like them just because they are a …clown. The mere fact of being a person in clown makeup seems to be the main focus of the performer. I've seen some get offended when the mere fact of their clown existence is not celebrated. Instead, I say, demonstrate your worth to your audience.

One of my favorite things to do in the hospital is to play music. Nineteen years ago I started my career as a hospital clown. The accordion was my first instrument as a clown. (I played the piano as a teenager. Later in my 20s, I began playing the piano accordion because I liked the portability of the instrument. That's where my name "Squeeze "comes from.) For the past 16 years, I've been playing the ukulele as the main instrument in my hospital work. Many people hear this music before they see us. The music may make them want to pad their feet to the rhythm. When this happens, I am effectively introduced by music. This music is how I get acquainted with the audience.

Music isn't the only way of doing this. Sometimes I introduce myself with a hat trick or by juggling as I walk. These skills are valuable assists for a clown. It would benefit a clown to have a method of demonstrating this in their repertoire — something they can use to engage their audience member somewhat subversively to entertain them.

With this approach, the audience often sees the activity first. They hear the music; they see the juggling they hear laughter from someone else as they approach. This act of doing can be essential in overcoming the fear.

It's the doing of clown that can alleviate the anxiety and clown fear.

This is the artistic challenge a clown can take to address the fear.

In a future post, I will discuss ways of dealing with "borderline situations." Positive ways of coping with clown apprehension.

Big Brother Artistic Inspiration

I grew up in the shadow of my big brother. He was an artist before I was. I watched as he learned to play music, and as he began his life in visual art. I followed in his footsteps. Eventually, I stuck with music and became a performance artist. He stayed with the visual arts of painting, drawing, and photography.

Today is April 4. It would have been my brother, James Gordon’s 56th birthday. However, he’s not with us anymore. I have several of his photos and drawings hanging on the walls of our home. I think about how gregarious he was. I always envied his ability to be social and make new friends.

He passed away from complications with AIDS in 1994. He was 31.


I miss my big brother.

Happy birthday Jim!

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Fear of Clowns (post #2)

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As professional clowns, we sometimes see people who have a fear of us. Often this fear is exaggerated. I've seen adults run from the room in a panic only because a clown has been in their presence. That sounds crazy! It is more insane when you see it happen. As irrational as that fear is, it's essential to understand where it comes from. Many people have a genuine concern that a clown is going to do something to them, Throw a pie in their face, spray water on them from the clown lapel. These are overused cliches.

Some people use the presence of a clown as a reason for their emotional outburst. This is where we see the fear exaggerated. Sometimes these extreme feelings swing to hatred of a clown. Others will avert their eyes as if merely seeing the clown will cause them harm. These reactions are the opposite of what we clowns want.

For others, the site of a clown is joyous and happy.

Let them go...

In my experience, I've learned that the best way to handle the fear is to not participate in the emotional swing of these feelings. It's best to resist the urge to deal with this problem by trying to fix the fear. If you are a clown and someone doesn't want to be in the room with you so much that they run away, ...Let them go. Running after them will not make the situation better.

Let's talk...

Another reaction I've seen some clowns try is to "talk it out." This involves explaining. It's usually some form of a conversation where the clown tries to show that they are not scary. The clown talks about her/his professional training or some rational explanation as to why the person should not be afraid. This is a well-intended, but faulty approach in my opinion. It's understandable that we don't want people to be afraid of us but talking about it doesn't serve our purpose.

"I work hard at this..."

Being a professional clown takes work, dedication, and commitment. Many of us have trained for years as an acrobat/improviser/ juggler/ musician, physical theater artist, or as a magician. We take pride in our work. We have honed these skills into an art form. We are eager to share the art of clowning.

However, I believe it's crucial to keep in mind that the people who have a fear of clowns haven't put much serious thought into this issue. They are reflexively expressing a feeling. This reflexive expression could just as easily be about, NASCAR, or Taylor Swift. Imagine if someone came up to you and insisted that you listen to their favorite Tay Tay song, or they expected you to listen to them talk about their favorite stock car driver. Taylor Swift and NASCAR are very popular among those people who know and like them. That said, many people have little or no interest in either of them.

I've seen instances where a clown has taken his or her time to explain why one should not be afraid of clowns patiently. The explanation includes details about clown training and includes reasons why they should not be frightened of clowns.

As I've said, most people don't care about that. They are not expressing a rational thought. They are reflexively responding. Someone may see some positive results after explaining to a fearful person. This person may be persuaded not to be afraid. Again it's not crucial for that person to understand this fear. After all the explaining they may agree with you. However, the next time they see a clown, they are not likely to care about the well thought out rationale you gave them. They are more likely to fall back on to the reflexive reaction they have always had.

All this is to say that the best approach in dealing with the clown fear is to not focus on their fear. It is best to have another method.

I will share details about this in my next clown fear post.

Good drama does that.

I recently helped produce an original musical by my church. This was the second production our church has done. Last year we did Godspell junior. For this year, we decided to commission two local artists, Dardy Guinn, and Ash Anderson, to write an original musical about our church's history. Oakhurst Presbyterian is a small church in Decatur, GA. We wanted this production to reflect on our church's history. This history includes the civil rights struggles that happened here in Atlanta. These issues affected not only the city but also the church. We also wanted the show to address issues of today's world like gender identity in the LGBTQ community and the student-led movement for gun control. That's a lot to cover. I'm proud of the show we created. The cast of the show reflected the congregation. It was multi-generational (with actors from 10 years old to 86 years) and multiracial.

One of the highlights during the show for me was looking into the audience and seeing one of the" senior" members of the congregation. She was sitting in one of the pews with tears rolling down her face. At first, I was concerned about her. Later I realized she was having a cathartic moment. Yesterday I received a card from her. Here is what she said

"....The play was so meaningful to me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for our 29 years in this remarkable faith community. It brought me to tears. Good drama can do that. Thank you so much for being such an important part of our Oakhurst players.

With love and admiration."

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New Music Bossa nova

I’ve been listening to a lot of bossa nova recently. It started when I found myself listening to the Antonio Carlos Jobin station on Pandora. I wanted to play more music like this. I took some basic bossa nova chords, ( Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7, G, G7) and practiced playing them. As I was doing this, I heard the melody of “twinkle twinkle little star in the chords changes. I added a whistling improv as an intro. Here is the result. I’ve been doing this in the hospital a lot recently.

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Fear of Clowns

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Coulrophobia is an irrational fear of clowns.

Fear of clowns is a big issue in my world. As a professional clown, I come across this issue more often than I would like. What drives this fear is irrational. More importantly, as a professional clown, I’ve learned that our reaction to this fear can be handled positively or it can be handled poorly, making the clown fear worse.

First, a little bit about the actual fear: there is a belief in our culture that clowns are scary. You can go to the Stephen King character Pennywise as an example. Someone who’s lurking in the dark eager to do something evil. Part of the power of this bad clown example is that it takes the idea of what should be happy, joyful delightful, and it turns it into something evil and scary. It’s an inherent dichotomy. What could be more frightening than something that should be happy but instead is evil? In summer 2016, this clown fear got out of control. There were news stories of people complaining about clowns. It became a meme. The situation peaked as it usually does at Halloween. Eventually in late 2016 clown phobia subsided to its pre-existing level.

Most of my dealings with clowns phobias are in my work as a hospital clown. I’ve been working at the hospital clown since 2000. I began working with the Big Apple Circus in 2000 and have continued to do this work with Humorology Atlanta. During my time as a hospital clown, I have seen patients, family, and staff members who have this fear. I’ve seen some good ways to address this issue. I’ve also witnessed a few easy mistakes and pitfalls in dealing with this. I will discuss some of these mistakes in future posts here in my blog. Then I will move on to what I believe are the best practices and approaches for dealing with coulrophobia.

Diversity call for clowns

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Today I had a conference call with several other clowns from around the country. We were talking about ideas to make our clowns and our medical clown team leadership more aware of racial and LGBTQ diversity.

This is a difficult subject to discuss. Many of us in the arts and performing community assume that we already have a good understanding of these types of issues. My experience has taught me that's not always the case. I did find some comfort in a few people at the American Circus Educators conference here in Decatur this past October. It was refreshing to hear the issue of diversity brought up by so many white people. There was an effort to understand the problem in a way that I haven't seen in other places. I hope that our conversation today will be the first step in bringing this up in a productive way.