Canvas the Clown In the Press
canvas clown finds her job colorful
By Margo Harakas
May 8 2002
Halperin, motionless on her pedestal, could see the female cop on the sidelines
waiting for a break in the crowd. It was obvious the officer was going to shoo
away the human canvas.
As the officer approached, Halperin silently extended a brush. The officer
extended handcuffs. They mimed back and forth, the officer finally picked up a
brush, painted on Halperin, laughed and walked away.
Another disarming performance by the 22-year-old anthropology graduate from
Weston who conceived her gig as "Canvas the Clown" on the faulty premise that
"people in an urban setting are not willing to make contact with each other."
"I was wrong," she says. Her laundry and paint bills attest to just how wrong
With face painted white and dressed in white canvas overalls, white shirt, white
gloves, white hat, white shoes and white stockings, Halperin stations herself on
a street or, as she did on Saturday, near the fountain at Riverfront in Fort
Lauderdale, silently and subtly beckoning passersby to participate in her
"I thought she was a statue," marvels Michele Dubreus, 12, wide-eyed and
So did adult Judy Lewis, who spotted Halperin from an upstairs restaurant. "Not
till I came down here did I realize she was human," says Lewis, who painted a
heart on Halperin's sleeve. "I wanted to paint her face, but she gave me a look
like, `Don't go there.'
"She's probably a very peaceful person," notes Lewis, watching the smiling kids
crowd around. "She probably loves kids."
Paint is flying now. Great gobs are being slathered on shoes, arms, legs. "Yuck,
that must feel so gross," observes one onlooker.
A pack of teenage boys arrives. One steps forward, picks up a brush and traces a
circle on Halperin's breast, and then a line down the inside of her thigh.
Giggling, he moseys off with his pals.
"I wanna do it again, I wanna do it again, Mommy," pleads 4-year-old Julia Van
de Bogart, who paints a rainbow on Halperin's leg.
It doesn't take long for Halperin to be colorized. On her hat, a blue flower
blossoms. Stars and initials stream down her arms.
Canvas the Clown is actualizing, losing her whiteness to splotches and dribbles.
Hours later, before washing and bleaching her $22 overalls, Halperin will
examine the finished canvas and marvel once again at the human craving for
contact and creativity.
"The essence of the act is the interaction. Without people painting on me, there
is no show. It forces people to become their own entertainment," says this woman
with the open face and poised manner.
On Sunday, less than two years after assuming the role of an organic art
collective, Halperin begins a seven-month road tour that will take her across
the United States and into Canada. She'll play street corners and festivals and
parties, as usual. Hopefully, her tip jar and the handful of sponsors she's
soliciting will finance her Paint-a-Mime Tour 2002.
Granted, it's not the work envisioned as she pursued a degree in anthropology at
New College of Florida, in Sarasota. But in a sense, the college is to blame.
Its emphasis on independent research led to Halperin's thesis on "the social
space of street performance."
"I did an ethnography of a community of performers in Boston," she says. Her
finding: "Street performance enlivens a city. It creates in a city contact that
would not otherwise exist."
Inspired by her own research, Halperin dared to try her hand at street
"I was a very shy child so I never conceived of being a performer. I knew I had
to do something that didn't involve speaking. I liked art and I liked silence."
Somehow in Halperin's imagination those two factors converged in the image of a
human canvas. She donned canvas overalls, bought children's washable paints, put
on a purple wig with braids, and debuted outside an ice cream store in Sarasota.
Unsure of what might happen, friends hovered protectively nearby.
"I felt very out of character. I had no clue as to what I was going to do," she
And though, as far as she knew, no one had attempted this type of gig before,
she thought there might be some rules, that it might be rude, for instance, to
make eye contact with the passing crowd.
"I soon discovered that it's not only OK to look at people, but that they want
you to look at them. I started making eye contact and it changed the whole show.
It became more human, more interesting. I could walk away with actual memories
of people and things that happened."
In fact, if there's anything Halperin has learned it's that "in an urban setting
people want to be seen. They say thank you for eye contact and thank you for the
invitation to participate."
Though Halperin calls herself a clown, she is not technically clown, mime or
statue, though her performance combines elements of all three. Because she'll
freeze in a position for several minutes, some folks start painting before they
realize their smiling canvas is alive.
Just the unexpectedness of her appearance on a street corner creates an air of
excitement. "You can see a heightened sense of presence in the whole surrounding
landscape when people are presented with the unexpected," she notes.
Even as she sets up -- draping a white sheet over her pedestal, placing the open
jars of paint on the ground -- the curious draw near.
"I'm exploring the lines between life and art," says Halperin. "That's really
the theme of the show. You can't tell where the performance starts or the city
starts." Or who is performer and who is spectator. "I become the audience of the
city and the people who are painting on me."
The most rewarding experience is when a shy child observes, then picks up one of
the brushes. When the shy ones realize "I'm not going to ask anything of them,
they feel comfortable and they don't want to leave," she says.
Halperin is surprised and pleased at the lack of inappropriate graffiti. "Some
people have written nasty things, but the next person who comes along paints
over it," she says. "The people protect me."
Each performance results in a totally new and unique "artwork" that Halperin
would like to donate to charity for fund-raising. Now, for the most part, she
just washes and bleaches the painted overalls and uses them again. (When doing
private parties, Halperin becomes a human guest book in which case she leaves
the overalls with the host.)
Halperin, who got her bachelor's in 2001, plans to return to school for her
master's degree, probably next year, after her tour. (Halperin will chronicle
her travels in photos and words on her Web site, www.canvas clown.com.)
She hopes to show that while "most distractions in cities are made by noise and
motion, this [her act] is still and silent and just as powerful. The message is,
it's OK to be alone, and it's OK to be still."
That's part of it. But as noted on her Web site, the shtick is also about joy
and communication and human contact.
"The performance itself is just a vehicle ... The real heart of the mission is
to spread a little happiness, laughter and thought. It is to touch people, one
by one, and to share a message of peace and humanity."
Margo Harakas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4728.
Copyright © 2002,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
(they may have removed the story from their server after a certain amount of
Canvas Clown still a big draw
By Margo Harakas
December 29, 2002
Karen Halperin, aka Canvas the Clown, took her gig on the road as planned in
"It was fantastic," said the 23-year-old street performer from Weston. "I made
it up the East Coast through New England, into Montreal and Toronto and then
back down into Detroit and the Midwest, Tennessee, Georgia and on home."
Halperin, you'll remember, is the anthropology graduate who, dressed head to
toe in white and surrounded with paint jars, silently beckons passers-by to
paint on her.
A favorite stopover on her summer journey was Burlington, Vt. "The crowds were
good, the people were generous, it was beautiful weather."
Most thrilling was the enthusiastic reaction of the people. Vermonters, it
turns out, are wonderfully creative.
"A lot of people took out their pens and began writing poetry on my outfit, or
taking found objects and putting them on my overalls."
Halperin had envisioned a seven-month tour, but returned three months early to
help work on her dad's political campaign. Republican Alexander "Sandy"
Halperin narrowly lost his first bid for the state House, in a race against
incumbent Nan Rich in District 97.
While he won't be going to Tallahassee, his daughter will. In January, she'll
enter graduate school at Florida State University as a political science
major. But she intends in her spare time to continue as a human canvas.
The world of politics and the world of street performance are similar, she's
concluded. "They can complement each other nicely."
In fact, she's begun writing a mystery that blends the two.
Meantime, Canvas the Clown is booked for a performance at the World Magic
Seminar in Las Vegas in January. The producer became interested in Halperin
after reading about her in the Sun-Sentinel. He subsequently caught her act in
Margo Harakas can be reached at mharakas @sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4728.
Copyright © 2002,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel