By Carlienne A. Frisch
“The magic words are ‘I love to read,’” the youngster said when she arrived home from a children’s library program. She was part of a group of Mankato-area children who heard the message that reading is fun from a friendly, funny character--Violet the Clown. When not in her clown costume, Violet is known as Darcy Kies. Kies became interested in clowning when her niece was in Camp Fire programs, and Kies was looking for an activity to present to the youth.
Sandy Kephart, a St. Cloud clown known as Maizy, got interested in clowning as a student in a fine arts class at Iowa Lakes Community College, where she was working on an associate degree in commercial arts. The students were assigned to draw their own faces, analyzing their bone structure and muscle movement. They found the assignment to be so interesting that they decided to carry the creativity further by using their faces in clowning to entertain the community. Kephart explained, “We poor, broke art students decided to put it out into the community--to Scouts and to care centers.”
Kies and Kephart aren’t just clowning around when they put on their costumes and their clown faces. They continue a centuries-old tradition that began in the Middle Ages, when clowns entertained royalty and nobility, often communicating messages with their actions. Like clowns in history, Kies and Kephart always bring a message to their audiences. Kies encourages children to develop their reading ability and to learn Bible lessons. Kephart’s activities also proclaim Biblical truths, including in India, where she has presented the gospel through clowning while on mission trips.
A Purple Identity
Kies developed an identity as Violet the Clown in a variety of ways. In the late 1990s, she began dressing her clown self in purple, her favorite color. A relative made Violet’s costumes--one lavender, the other a darker purple.
“When I went to a national convention in the Twin Cities, I took classes and workshops,” Kies said, “and I met other clowns from the Mankato area, including people in the Bonbon Clown Club in LeCenter. They had a pink convertible.”
No doubt this led to Kies driving a purple Ford Escort on which she had vanity plates proclaiming her clown name--Violet. At the convention, Kies also learned to apply clown makeup, do magic acts, and create balloon animals. “I fell in love with clowning,” she said.
Kies also did corporate parties and magic shows, as well as teaching sixth grade students about clowning. One year, an agricultural association sponsored her clowning at the Minnesota State Fair.
Because Kies’ mother, Shirley Lieske, worked in a library, Kies brought clowning to the summer reading program in several libraries. When she served as the Christian Education and Youth Director at her church, she taught middle school students about clowning, helping them create costumes and clown identities that they then presented to residents of nursing homes. She has specialized in face painting, magic tricks and making balloon animals.
Kephart became well acquainted with clowning in 1990 when she and her husband moved to Hutchinson. “There was a group of about 25 clowns, and they kind of mentored me,” she said. “We did parades, shows, and school events. Then in 2002, I attended the premier clown arts education camp in Maple Lake. I trained under Roly Bain, an Englishman who is a Catholic priest. He walked a slack rope, which is thicker than a tight rope, in clown shoes, as a parallel to dealing with life’s challenges.
“There is more to clowning than being funny,” Kephart said. “Clowns throughout history have spoken the truth. Court jesters were able to tell the king the truth. My eyes were opened to using the clowning as a tool,” which is what Kephart did over 15 years as the leader of children’s ministry at Peace Lutheran Church in Hutchinson.
Presenting Biblical Stories Through Clowning
“I could present any Biblical story in a fun way and speak the truth,” she said. “When you laugh and play, your heart opens up, things are received more readily, the children are with you, and you are not lecturing with a closed heart. There’s fun, wonder and emotion.”
As a result of her experience, Kephart began teaching a variety of clowning skills--hospital clowning, the circus circuit, birthday parties, and--dearest to her heart--clowning as mission work. She has gone to India for two-to-three week stretches--including in 2006, not long after a tsunami decimated part of the country. During her first mission trip, she brought clowning joy to children who had been moved to an orphanage in the mountains after the tsunami destroyed their homes. She learned about the mission from a friend she’d met at clowning school.
“The pastor in India and I had a mutual friend,” Kephart said. “At the orphanage, they were struggling with providing joy, love, and hope--those emotional things--and the friend I had met at clowning school was acquainted with the mission, Bless India, and was financially supporting it.”
Kephart has made seven trips to India, where she has trained college-aged Bible students about clowning-- “what we do and why we do it”--she said. “We left the equipment, the ‘magic’ supplies, so they could carry on. It grew and grew. Even today, as pastors, they are using that equipment and presenting the gospel in a whole new way with the children. The really cool thing is that clowning is not part of their culture, and logically, it should not have worked, but God’s thinking is so much greater than ours. God uses the most unlikely people--look at the disciples--and unlikely situations to accomplish his will. That is the great ‘takeaway’ from the whole thing.”
It isn’t only in India that Kephart has used clowning to present the gospel. She has worked with pastors in inner-city Detroit, as well as in Georgia, Florida, and rural Iowa and Minnesota. She said, “We knock on doors to have people come to a picnic during which we do clowning gospels. There’s really no plan. God opens the door, and it’s my job to be ready and prepared, and to say yes.”