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He made Gumby, dammit

Posted by Ty Burr  January 11, 2010 10:24 AM

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Art Clokey 1921 - 2010 


I didn't realize Art Clokey, one of pop culture's true originals, had passed away on Friday until I read it in today's Times. Yes, he created Gumby and Pokey, but also -- and I'd forgotten this was him -- "Davey and Goliath," a claymation series that decanted gentle Lutheran moral lessons into young ears in the 1960s. (As a kid, I used to watch it while getting ready for Sunday school -- "Community Auditions" was always on when I got back -- and I still occasionally hear Goliath in the back of my brain telling me "I don't know, Davey -- God doesn't like that" when I'm committing a minor trespass.)

Clokey was, for all purposes, an outsider artist who somehow made it inside the door. The reason Eddie Murphy's profane SNL riff was always so funny was that "Gumby" was a series both serene and surreal, unhinged from commonplace notions of kiddie entertainment in a way that has influenced Pee-wee Herman and other alt-family purveyors but also informed with a quiet sense of purpose somewhere between Martin Luther and Zen. It's no coincidence that a 2008 documentary on Clokey is called "Gumby Dharma." It's also no coincidence that Clokey studied under avant-garde filmmaker and montage artiste Slavko Vorkapich while he was at USC. Yet the inspiration for Gumby came from a much more personal place: Clokey always said he modeled his most famous character after his father, Arthur Farrington, who died in a car accident when young Art was nine. He wasn't kidding, either:

farrington.gifProbably the best way to appreciate Clokey's wayward genius is to take a look at his 1953 claymation breakthrough (and USC graduate project), "Gumbasia":

 Again, it's the loopy handmade funkiness -- the visible and psychic fingerprints, the care in every frame -- that endears. What I love about Clokey's body of work is that it's unique yet within the reach of anyone with a lump of plasticine and a camera. Any kid could do it. Any kid does do it: Below is a video a friend's ten-year-old son made the other day of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch god Cthulhu juggling a ball. (The kid hasn't actually read any Lovecraft, I hear, but I guess mom's been telling bedtime stories.) In childlike wit and patient enthusiasm -- if not exactly Christian spiritual underpinnings -- these 12 seconds are rife with all that was and is Clokey. 

Admit it: Now you want to make your own. Go for it. Art would have wanted it that way.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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