The idea for the Canvas Clown was born when
Karen Halperin was in her 3rd year of college at New College of Florida, a
small school where students are to conduct independent original research
and write a baccalaureate thesis as a requirement for graduation.
The long story involves some
then-unfortunate events in which Karen's original thesis idea (to work
with post-traumatic stress patients in Israel and Gaza) fell through. She
found herself in Boston for the summer before her 4th year, taking a
statistics course at Boston University and walking around the city for
One one such day, Karen and her friend
Elizabeth were passing through Quincy Market--the historic downtown area
connected to Fanneuil Hall--when they happened upon a man dressed in a
sparkly silver shirt holding a small girl upside-down and shaking
her pockets for change. A small crowd of people were already stopped
around him, and the circle continued to grow as this man (soon to be known
as Peter Gross) proceeded to use slight of hand to steal another
spectator's watch and perform (as he calls them) "other suspect
Karen and Elizabeth were quite
entertained--but even more so, were in awe that such things could be
happening in public without anyone getting upset. Shaking children for
coins and stealing watches is certainly unacceptable in most public
settings, and yet this guy was out there making people come together,
shock them, captivate them, leave everyone laughing.... AND! get them to
pay him for doing it.
Instead of just dropping a dollar in
Peter's hat, Elizabeth suggested they invite him to have a beer. He
agreed, and through the next half hour, Peter shared a bit about his
life... He told them about a whole community of street performers in
Boston and across the world who did this kind of thing for a living.
Karen, who was studying communities and
networks as part of her major in anthropology decided immediately: THIS
is what I want to study for my thesis... I want to study street
performers... Who they are... how their community is structured... what
they bring to cities and to the public... what public service they
offer... what roles they play, now and in history, in relaying
information, spreading news.... how their presence changes the social
environment or social space in urban areas... how their very existence is
in itself a statement .... but of WHAT??
She called her thesis advisor and he agreed
Karen then spent the next three months of
the summer among the street performers in Boston and Cambridge. There were
jugglers, musicians, variety acts, mimes, statutes, magicians, and one
particularly stand-out puppeteer.
She interviewed them, filmed their shows, tracked audiences, researched
historical files, and even became an apprentice to the puppeteer...but
something was missing... Observation was great but Karen wanted to
participate in her own way.
The problem was that Karen cannot juggle,
can be rather shy for speaking, and had no particular skill for music. The
living statues were really cool (there was an awesome "Bride" named
Amanda, and an "Angel" named Blake), but Karen wanted to be at least
somewhat interactive with the crowds.
The idea for the Canvas Clown did not come
until she was back in Sarasota, in her living room still trying to juggle.
She was listening to her roommate Shannon's "Joy Division" CD and
something in the song must have triggered the idea:
Dress in white, stand really still, and
let the audience paint on me... They'll be the performer, then... They'll
be the activity... I'll be blank and the participants will create me new
each show... There will be motion... in eye contact, invitations to
paint, but the main event will be that of trust, and connectedness... and
Karen went out and bought some white
clothes and non-toxic washable paint. She got a long purple-wig, braided
it, and found a crate to stand on. Elizabeth was there for the first show.
It was in front of Ben & Jerry's in St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota. It
was scary for Karen, and thrilling.
It's working! They're getting it!? I can
unnerve people by making them think I am a statue and then moving!? Shy
kids are watching for a while and then feeling comfortable enough to
paint! People are actually paying me for this!?!
Things progressed from there... in terms of
shows, parties, technique and philosophy. After graduating from New
College, Karen moved back to Ft. Lauderdale and continued to develop the
Canvas Clown. A few months later, she got in her car, piled her belongings
into a pod on the roof, and set out alone to drive around the United
States and Canada, doing shows from city to city
and festival to festival, and earning enough to keep herself and
Today's biggest update is about Karen's
sister Lauren. She's taken up partnership in the Canvas Clown Company and
is keeping Canvas alive in Los Angeles, California. In March 2006, Lauren
filmed an appearance as Canvas Clown on Paris Hilton & Nicole Ritchie's
"The Simple Life" television show. We'll keep you posted on what happens