When my father was a young boy growing up on Oak Street in Morganton in the 1950s — before 1958, when my grandparents moved to another house — his mother bought him a painting of a clown done by a local artist. The artist chose to paint the clown in the “Weary Willie” style of the time period.
Weary Willie was a character clown created by Emmett Kelly, a circus clown himself. Kelly portrayed Willie as a hobo figure from America’s Great Depression. Hobos were individuals without work or much direction, and many rode the trains looking for jobs and other things.
Kelly’s “Willie” is dressed in rags and has a face with the mouth slightly turned down in a sad frown. Kelly is said to have created the character while trying to recover from a failed marriage.
The clown painting rests in a wooden frame and has a wood backing. Unlike Kelly’s clown, the one in the painting has his mouth painted in a slight smile. My father thinks the smile may have originally turned down like Willie’s but my grandmother took it back to the artist and had the mouth repainted. The clown is dressed in typical hodgepodge fashion, a striped blue shirt and a green plaid jacket. He’s got a small handkerchief coming out of his jacket pocket and a small hat with a feather popping out.
The painting hung in my dad’s bedroom when he was a kid, and it scared him to death. One year at Halloween, my grandfather put on a clown mask and waited outside my dad’s window to scare him. It worked, and my dad has never been a fan of clowns.
As a young boy myself, I would sleep in the same bedroom and wonder if the clown was watching me. There were sliding closet doors near the bed. Often, my feet would hit them while sleeping, and I would wake up wondering if the clown was out of the painting and in the room somewhere.
Sometimes, it is silly what frightens us. Sometimes, not. The clown picture followed me to college, to my first homes, and now rests in the study. I laugh now to think about how scared I was of it in my youth.
Now, it is a testament to family. The painting is a reminder of all the good times we have shared, connects me to my father, and reminds me of all the fun I had at my grandparents’ house growing up. My sister and I recently had a discussion about “the clown.”
There is a word for it: coulrophobia, an excessive fear of clowns. Although only about 2% of the population suffers from this condition, studies point to some kind of fear of costumed characters in younger children. I know a few children who were frightened by the sight of a costumed cow at a favorite restaurant.
In ancient times, there were people who acted as clowns to entertain pharaohs, emperors, and kings. Clowns were bumbling and funny and meant no harm. As the western world industrialized, clowns moved to the stage and the circus. Linda Rodriquez McRobbie has written a nice piece about clowns in an article for Smithsonian Magazine.
The clown in dad’s painting, although looking a little disheveled, seems content, and a little stoic. I have not hung the painting yet. After more than 60 years, it is holding up well. There are some scratches on it from transporting it from place to place. Like Kelly’s hobo clown, it has moved around some.
To look at it is to be reminded about fears coming and going. Getting over our fears and cresting over feelings about ourselves are proof we can be victorious in this life. Laughing about something that used to frighten means we have reached some measure of growth.
Some of us may be united in our fears, while others may laugh at what scares us, but I am not afraid of clowns anymore.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI. If anyone has any information on the local or regional artist who might have painted clowns in the 1950s, he would like you to let him known. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.