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  • The Meaning of Makeup: Clowning and Its Larger Significance

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    The thought process, symbolism, and history behind a clown’s makeup is far more complicated than meets the diamond-shaped eye. For Kim Hawkins, who performs as a sea captain clown named Admiral, creating her signature face paint has been a personal journey steeped in the history of the art form. Although the process requires several layers, Hawkins learned early on that clowning is more about exploring who she is rather than hiding behind a caricature.

    “The whole thing about clowning, it’s not putting something over who you are,” she clarifies. “It’s bringing out who you are as a funny person and letting that kind of manifest itself however that comes out. So you might not have a real clear idea when you start planning how you want to look. You’ll adapt the standard stuff you can go to the store and buy, but the longer you do it the more it’s like your inner clown starts speaking to you,” she laughs.

    In a demonstration at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Hawkins and fellow clown Jeff Raz illustrated the thought and effort that goes into crafting a clown’s signature look.

    “Each cheek is going to be different,” Raz narrated as Hawkins applied her makeup.

    He asked visitors to put a hand to each cheek, feeling the individual movements of the facial muscles while talking, smiling, or frowning. These micro movements help convey expressions, he explained, and the paint is meant to highlight them. It’s different for everyone, as is finding one’s “inner clown.”

    Jeff Raz and Kim Hawkins
    Jeff Raz and Kim Hawkins ham it up in Clown Alley at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by JB Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Inward inspiration isn’t the only source to draw on, however. The art of clowning is rich in traditional archetypes.

    “The more you read, the more you understand the history, there are all the stock characters that exist,” Hawkins explains. “There are the lovers, there is, in my case, the sea captain, there’s the greedy merchants, there’s the sly politician-type person. They’ve existed for centuries, and they’re not going anywhere. You can find those elements in yourself, who you might be, and start incorporating more and more of those.”

    Many of these traditional archetypes are personified in commedia dell’arte, an Italian theatrical form that used recurring characters. One of them is a Venetian sea captain, the inspiration for Hawkins’s Admiral.

    “In commedia, it became very codified,” Hawkins continues. “They would actually have certain colors for Harlequino, and it was understood. The clown wouldn’t even have to open their mouth, they could just walk on, and everybody would know: that’s Harlequino, and he’s going to be the bumpkin.”

    Such traditional meanings are not so easily spotted by audiences today. However, a lot has been gained with the passage of time, Hawkins says.

    Kim Hawkins
    Kim Hawkins allows visitors in Clown Alley to feel her face paint.
    Photo by Daniel Martinez, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “As you keep going though, it becomes more and more personalized. Like, as a sea captain, I started developing my own props, and most all of my props have sort of a nautical take to them.”

    Hawkins pulls out a pink clamshell that, when opened, reveals numbers for dialing.

    “This isn’t my cell phone—it’s my shell phone.”

    Clowning acts as a creative conduit for personal expression through jokes, costumes, props, and makeup. And finding the right clown makeup is a lot about working with what you’ve got—“not the face you wish you had, but the face that’s looking at you in the mirror,” Raz explained. Using what you have and who you are remains a keystone of clowning.

    Wilson Korges is a writer interning for the media department at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He recently graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s of science in history.

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