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 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.
NT: Obviously your subjects are not sitting for you.
Cassandra: We use photographs that we take ourselves. Because most of the clown portraits aren't commissioned.
NT: Most? You mean some politicians have actually asked to be clowned?
Michael: I've known Janet for years. She used to be my family's lawyer. I don't know if you've met her, but when she's not being a politician, she's small and dark and charming and very feminine. So we took our clown painting of her to her as a congratulations gift when she won the governorship, and that got us an invitation to her inauguration. Which is where we got photographs of Skip Rimsza, which we used to turn him into a prancing, stringless marionette clown, and photos of Joe Arpaio, who we made into a blustering, paramilitary fascist clown. We have to do our portraits from these candid photos, because in the photographs issued by their offices, they look the same in every picture.
NT: So you've clowned Janet Napolitano?
Michael: Janet's unclownable, because we love her. She's like a little oasis, like rain on parched earth. She might have an ego, I don't know, but she never lets it get in the way of her work. Janet is immune to clowning. I'd only clown her if she made me do it.
NT: Maybe you could just paint her with a rubber flower on her lapel, one that squirts you if you get too close. So what has Mayor Skippy had to say about his clown portrait?
Michael: We haven't heard, but we know he's seen it. I hope and pray, if he doesn't like his, that Janet is protecting us from him. I don't despise Skip Rimsza, but he was just so clownable that there was no way we couldn't paint him. It's like Arpaio; no matter what we did to him, clown-wise, we couldn't lose.
NT: I've seen your portrait of Rose Mofford as Bozo.
Michael: I think she's great as a clown! It took so little to clown her; she was a tiny step from clown already. Also Raul Castro, whom I love, but he just lent himself to clowning very well.
NT: So some people make better clowns than others.
Michael: Bush is a great clown. Kissinger, too. And Trent Lott! Totally a clown.
NT: In one of your paintings, you have Hopi kachinas as clowns. Isn't that sort of offensive to Native Americans?
Michael: I've talked to many a Hopi, and I revere their gods. They told me, "As long as you don't paint kachinas with beer bellies, holding martinis, smoking cigars, it's okay by us."
NT: So you got Native American clearance.
Cassandra: Well, we didn't go to the tribe and get written permission.
Michael: Let's just say we did these paintings and we didn't get scalped.
Michael: Can I just tell you what I like to say about realism?
NT: I wish you would.
Michael: Only artists who prove that they have absolute dictatorial command over realism can productively leave it behind.
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NT: I couldn't agree more. But you'd better beware. Fife Symington might take up painting and start doing portraits of you two!
Cassandra: All I can tell you is, we've already clowned ourselves. So let people do their worst.
-- By Robrt L. Pela
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