Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Jim Howle, Clown Artist

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson

While growing up Jim Howle was interested in becoming either an artist or an entertainer.  Success did not come easily to Jim, but he finally found it by combining his two interests to become an artistic clown and a clown artist.

Jim was born in Darlington , South Carolina , in 1939.  His father was a farmer who owned a country store.  His mother was a prominent prize-wining oil painter who inspired her son.  He said, “I knew how to draw before I could read. Drawing was my favorite pastime in school since the first grade.  I spent most of my time in all of my classes doodling: little tanks and soldiers and planes – at the expense of academics, naturally.

“As for the ham in me, I was in all the class plays and programs – anything to get out of class.”

What Jim really wanted to do was get out of town.  His father’s store was at a cross roads, and the young boy would imagine where those roads might lead him.  The possibility of travel was one of the allures of being an artist.  While reading Ernest Hemmingway’s Islands in the Stream, Jim realized that it was possible for Hemmingway to live in beautiful Cuba because he could do his work anywhere while his agent in New York sold his work.  Jim figured that as an artist he could paint anywhere while galleries sold his work.

After graduating from High School, Jim entered the Ringling School of Art, founded by John Ringling, in Sarasota , FL , and was accepted.  Jim wasn’t ready to make the commitment to study that the school required and he lasted only six months.  Jim said, “In art school you were not graded on how well you did, but on how much you learned and progressed.  You could have the best natural talent and get an F if you didn’t improve.  You just got kicked out.”

Jim gave up his dream of being an artist and tried to live a conventional life for seven years.  However, it didn’t bring him happiness.  After his first marriage ended, Jim turned to his art and enrolled once again in the Ringling School of Art.  This time he completed the course.  Jim said, “This time I was ready for the discipline.  I worked hard. I made progress and I was graduated.”

After he was graduated by the art school in May, 1968, Jim decided to pursue his other goal.  He began working at two jobs in Sarasota to earn enough money to go to either Hollywood or New York to study acting.  He hung out at the Oslo Theater which is on the Ringling museum grounds and was there when Mel Miller called asking if anyone wanted to be a clown.  Jim had become interested in the circus during art school field trips to sketch at the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus winter quarters.  He thought touring with a circus would satisfy his desire to travel.  Jim was accepted as a student for the initial class of the RBB&B Clown College .

After graduating from Clown College in 1968, Jim received a contract to tour with the RBB&B Circus Red Unit.  He said, “I thought I would be a clown right after the eight-week course was over, but it was two years before I could really say I was a clown, and I probably needed another 20 years to say I was a good one…  Can I give you a moment on what makes a clown great?  It takes a clown working every day of his life, experiencing, working in close proximity to an audience, and developing and working on routines, over and over and over and over again, until they work absolutely perfect.  And in the process of this he makes a few mistakes.  And those mistakes are sometimes funnier than what he set out to do on purpose. He adds those things, he adds those ad-libs.  He puts all those ingredients together.  Now this takes time.  You don't do this tomorrow afternoon.  Then he goes out and he sees his friends working.  The more he travels, the more chance he has to see other performers working, doing their comedy in other forms.  He sees a lot of theater, and he watches a lot of movies and television.  He gets ideas from here and there. And he watches and he learns timing and he learns subtlety. If he keeps his eyes and ears open and he works at it for 30 years ... 35 years, he becomes a genius -- at least in everybody's minds because if a situation arises, he knows how to respond to it.  He's seen it over and over again, and he knows the funniest way possible to respond.  It's not an innate gift.  It's something that someone learns."

During his first two years touring with the RBB&B Circus, Jim set his art aside to concentrate on developing his tramp clown character. During his first season with RBB&B Circus Jim sat web, rode an elephant, appeared in production numbers, and performed in the Fire House, the Clown Car, and a revival of Paul Jung’s Sawing a Woman in Two.  In the sawing act, Duane Thorpe and Billy Ward were the magicians.  Jim was their lovely female assistant. After Jim was placed into the box, he exited down into the base.  Then he boosted Prince Paul and Mike Paddilla, two little people, up into the box.  When the two halves of the box were separated and opened, the two little people, one costumed as the woman’s torso and the other costumed as her skirt, ran off in opposite directions.  Jim said, “I hated playing that role which is probably what made it so funny.”

Jim Howle

Jim Howle

Illustration by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson

In 1970, Jim gradually returned to his art.  He bought a camera and an enlarger.  Using his knowledge of composition he began taking photos of other RBB&B Circus performers that he sold to them for use in their publicity.  The only place he could find that would work as a dark room was the donniker on the circus train.  Even there he had to drape a blanket over himself and his equipment to block out light.

He also began receiving commissions from other performers to paint their portraits.  Jim said he liked doing that because his subjects were “such vibrant and colorful characters with lavish costumes.”  He began painting in conditions that would have discouraged less dedicated artists.  There wasn’t enough room in his 8x11 foot room on the circus train to work there so he did most of his work backstage where lighting was inadequate.  His colors came out muddied until he learned to compensate for the light when mixing his paints.  He didn’t have an easel so he had to prop his canvass up on what was available.  He preferred working from life which meant he had to learn to work quickly because his models were available only during brief periods between acts.  Jim said, “The critics were something else.  You had at least 250 experts looking over your shoulder, making comments in at least 18 languages.  But it was good!  It had to help me whether I wanted help or not.”

Jim’s style evolved during this period and his painting improved.  He visited art galleries when he could to study what was being shown and what type of work was selling.  He discovered that galleries liked larger oil paintings and that portraits seemed to sell well.  Jim had his first one-man show at the Midtown Gallery in Salt Lake City in December 1974. 

Then in 1975 Jim was named the RBB&B Circus Official Artist.  For a year he traveled with the show in a 32’ trailer.  His art was displayed in malls and department stores.  He conducted other on site publicity for the show.  At the end of the year, Jim left the circus. 

Norman Rockwell was one of Jim’s inspirations.  When Jim saw a touring exhibit of Rockwell prints at a shopping center, he decided mall shows might be a good way to display his prints and get his career started.  Leon “Buttons” McBryde, who had been working as an advance clown for the RBB&B Circus, also left Feld Productions employment at the end of the 1975 season.  Leon and Jim decided to team up.  Leon produced Button’s Clown Alley, a live clown stage show for malls.  Jim appeared in Leon ’s show and sold prints of his clown portraits.  During a brief intense period in February of 1976, Jim painted his Contemporary American Clown series.  The series featured nine circus clowns: Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly, Lou Jacobs, Mark Anthony, Little Bobby Baxter, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, Mickey Rouse, Glen “Frosty” Little, and Bobby Kaye.  The tenth print in the series was a picture of a pair of red shoes that Jim had worn.  Jim said, “About every six months I drag them out and do a ‘portrait’.  Then I look at what I have painted to see if I can really say I’ve made progress in the past six months.  If I feel I have, I’m satisfied.  If not, I bear down and work harder.”  The red shoes have appeared in several of Jim’s other prints.

Magicians and other entertainers performing at malls would sit backstage between shows, but the clowns with Button’s Clown Alley would stroll throughout the mall entertaining the customers and inviting them to the next performance.  They also introduced themselves to the shop owners so they saw what they were paying for.  Button’s Clown Alley eventually became a feature of the Beeker Kanter chain of malls and the CBL mall chain.  Jim’s 16 x 20 prints were hung on the front of the set.  McBryde, Anthony, Baxter, and Rouse appeared in the shows and were depicted in the prints so the public could purchase a portrait of them after watching the performance.

Eventually Jim and Leon split.  Jim said he might not have been doing enough to contribute to the shows.  Jim started his own similar mall show.  People who worked with Jim included Bob Baxter, Earl Chaney, Mark Anthony, and Jonathan Wilkerson.

When the mall shows ended, Jim continued performing as a freelance clown and working on his art.  He painted a portrait of Lou Jacobs cuddling with his dog Knucklehead.  He created a triple portrait of Otto Griebling depicting him near the end of his life after he had been diagnosed with cancer and at two earlier periods of his life.  Another of Jim’s portraits was of Frankie Saluto.  His portraits documented the appearance of circus clowns, and his exhibitions kept their memory alive.

Jim joined the instructional staff of Clown Camp ® in 1987 and remained a part of the program through 2009 when it concluded its traditional classes.  This program, founded and directed by Richard Snowberg, offered one-week sessions of clown classes on the University of Wisconsin campus in La Crosse .  (Over the years Clown Camp ® also offered weekend On the Road programs around the United States , week-long programs in Canada , and international programs in Scotland , Japan , and Singapore .)  Participants who attended the UW-L Clown Camp ® have appeared in many different venues, including the circus.  One of the most prominent circus alumni of the program is Jennifer “Shenaigans” Edgerton who starting in 1991 was featured for many years with the Carson & Barnes Circus.  Jim was a very popular Clown Camp ® instructor.  He was particularly adept at encouraging participants and other staff members during personal interactions outside of the classes.  Jim has become a much sought after instructor teaching at other educational clown events which has allowed him to continue to travel.

During some years Clown Camp ® had a special period when instructors with circus experience cut up jackpots.  Jim is an outstanding story teller and contributed greatly to the success of these sessions.

In 1988, Jim introduced a new series of numbered limited edition prints to document the appearance of significant leaders in the art of clowning.  The series was called the Red Nose Philosophers.  Participants at Clown Camp ® voted on instructors they felt should be added to the series.  Each print was accompanied with a one page biography of the subject.  Individual prints could be purchased, but those who bought the entire set received a scrapbook Jim designed with pages for mounting the prints facing pages with the subject’s biography.  During a period of five years, eleven clowns received the Red Nose Philosopher honor.  Those with circus experience are Barry “Bonzo” DeChant, Patricia “Priscilla Mooseburger” Manuel Bothen, Arthur “Vercoe” Pedlar, Jim Howle, Steve “T J Tatters” Smith, Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, and Kenny Ahern.  The other three in the series are Richard “Snowflake” and “Junior” Snowberg, Lee “Juggles” Mullally, and Dorothy “Blab-a-gale” Miller.

When the International Clown Hall of Fame inducted their first group of clowns in 1989, they asked Jim Howle to design a special poster for the occasion.  Jim’s painting, titled Pit Stop, depicted Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling, Mark Anthony, Red Skelton, and Felix Adler clustered around Lou Jacobs exiting his little car.  Jim designed the 1990 ICHOF poster, titled “Wall of Fame,” which depicts pictures of the three inductees, Leon McBryde, Bob Keeshan, and Joseph Grimaldi, posted on the wall of a typical clown’s dressing room.  His painting for the 1991 ICHOF poster depicted Bobby Kaye, Frankie Saluto, Michael “Coco” Polakov, Glen “Frosty” Little, and Dan Rice.  After a period when other artists created the ICHOF posters, Jim designed the 1999 ICHOF poster depicting Bill Irwin, Richard “Snowflake” Snowberg, Charlie Rivel, Bob “Hambone” Hamilton, and Umberto “Antonet” Guillame.

An artist analyzes their subjects.  Jim’s observations while painting famous and significant clowns, combined with his own aesthetic sense developed as an artist, made him an expert on clown make up design.  He began offering a service he called It’s Your Face.  He would spend time getting to know a person and their needs, and then create a make up design specifically for them.  For example, Richard Snowberg was originally a whiteface clown.  When a medical condition meant he could no longer wear make up next to his eyes, Jim created an auguste make up design for Richard that disguises the fact that he has bare skin around his eyes.  Jim designs faces for hundreds of clowns each year.

Jim’s wife, Maybelle, has worked with him during the It’s Your Face sessions.  She would video tape the session so their customer went home with a record of how Jim applied the make up to their face.  She is a charming southern lady and they are a much loved couple in the clown community.

Jim and Maybelle Howle

Jim and Maybelle Howle

Photo by Merilyn Barrett, Courtesy of Clown Camp

In connection with his design service, Jim introduced his own brand of make up and artificial noses.  Continuing the philosophy that he learned at the Ringling School of Art Jim has worked hard to continually improve upon his products, in particular his noses.

Jim has continues to produce new portraits.  Some of them are original works that are done on commission.  Others are new additions to his line of prints.  In 2009 and 2010 three of Jim’s portraits appeared on covers of Clowning Around magazine published by the World Clown Association.

Through his work as a portrait artist Jim is documenting the current state of the art of clowning for study by future circus historians.  Through his work as a performer, instructor, and make up designer Jim is helping to shape the future of the art of clowning.  In recognition of his contributions to clowning, Jim was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1994.  In 2010 he received the World Clown Association President’s Humanitarian Award in recognition of his continued contributions.

This article originally appeared in the July/ August 2011 issue of White Tops, published by the Circus Fans of America Association.  Copyright 2011 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

John and Mardi Wells, the editors of White Tops, did an excellent job laying out the article and working with illustrations.  For example, they creatively combined four images to make a very striking illustration.  Because the work that they did is protected by the Copyright laws I have not duplicated their layout and illustrations here.  John and Mardi do a great job with every issue of White Tops producing an informative publication that looks wonderful.

For information on the Circus Fans of America Association go to http://www.circusfans.org/

 

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