The Clown Prints

Artists Michael and Cassandra Skomer bring the inner Bozo out of our politicos

Anyone confused about the difference between a circus clown and a politician should steer clear of husband-and-wife portrait artists Michael and Cassandra Skomer. The Phoenix duo have made a name for themselves in galleries far and wide with their wacky watercolors, in which they transform politicos into face-painted circus performers. They've buffooned George W. Bush and the Pope, but their specialty is local elected officials. They've given Skip Rimsza a red rubber nose, Joe Arpaio a pair of big floppy shoes, and Jake Flake new life in a rainbow-colored wig. Just don't ask them to give the Bozo to Governor Napolitano, who they claim is "unclownable."

In an interview rampant with non sequiturs, I attempted to determine which is scarier: clowns, politicians, or the people who paint them.

New Times: How'd you get started goofing on politicians?

Michael and Cassandra Skomer, with family.
Kevin Scanlon
Michael and Cassandra Skomer, with family.

Michael Skomer: We started clowning after we went to some prestigious galleries in Santa Monica that we wanted to be a part of. These galleries were very uptight, with pseudo art that didn't exemplify adequate virtuosity that could be considered craftsmanship, let alone art.

NT: I see.

Michael: We found one gallery run by a guy who liked clown art and who found the aspersions long cast at clown art to be inappropriate and wrong. He had turned his gallery into an all-clown-art gallery. We visited him and he said, "Do you have any clowns?" I wanted to say, "No, and why would we?" He looked at our stuff and he said, "I love your stuff; do clowns and you're in the show." We went home and thought, "But who wants to do clowns?"

NT: Eventually, you two did.

Michael: We couldn't do clowns until I came up with a concept, and my first one was short: "The Vegetarian By Predisposition. The California cannibal clowns invariably eat the prisoners after every battle to inspire terror in their enemies and reduce the possibility of further friction." Then I became a little more interested.

NT: I'm sorry?

Michael: Then I came up with "With diabolical political subversion, clowns seized control of the Catholic Church late in the fall of 1291 before finally being forced from power a year later by Pope Pius IX. Half of the continent of Europe had been ravaged by the clown wars, where vast carnival armies would assail and attack strategic cathedrals."

NT: So do these little sayings help you somehow?

Michael: Right. They helped us get into clown art. We'd known Janet Napolitano for years, and we gave her one of our clown works, and it was pretty much, "I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I know not where."

NT: What are you talking about?

Michael: After we gave one of our portraits to Janet, we got some media coverage and one thing led to another and we became known as notorious clown artists.

NT: And there's sort of a subversive message in your painting politicians as clowns.

Cassandra Skomer: We like to think of it as taking portraiture to the next level.

Michael: It's about more than adding superficial, skin-deep cosmetics to the person. My idea is that clowns are the ghosts of those who have suffered death by insanity. When people ask, "How do you come up with these portraits?" I always say, "Anyone may paint a portrait like this. The artist has simply to cut his model's head off, toss it into a ravine, jump in after it, and paint the expression on the face as it falls."

NT: Well, any first-year arts professor will tell you that. But are you saying you're not making a statement about politicians by painting them as clowns?

Michael: I think politicians are already caricatures of humanity. Take Joe Arpaio, for example: He might be an erudite, complex, multifaceted individual, but the government pays him to be monochromatic. They don't want him to be compassionate and objective. His political persona is so abstract that it's almost a clown version of a real person.

NT: So he's a clown to begin with.

Michael: Well, with the personality that he presents to the public, the one that has somehow gotten him elected over and over again, he's trying to scare criminals away. He knows that clowns can be pretty scary. Politicians, like clowns, have to project a certain face.

NT: You're saying that politicians are caricatures of human beings.

Michael: We've gotten to know a lot of politicians, good ones and bad ones, and there are so many bad ones that need to be pilloried. Since we no longer live in the age of tarring and feathering, we are clowning them instead.

NT: You have a piece called War Clowns that depicts George Bush and Trent Lott and Cardinal Law.

Michael: Republicans were so rabid and incendiary in their reaction to that one, because we were clowning their idols. So we decided we'd better clown some Democrats, too. But when I showed these portraits to the Republicans, they were not mollified in the least. They said, "You made the Democratic clowns so friendly; you want to hug them and kiss them!" We try to be equal opportunity clowners, but our own feelings come out.

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