Mary Beth Martin found that creating art stopped making her smile for a while, but through an alternate path she discovered she loved giving other people a reason to laugh.
“When I was in college, in the ’70s, they were pushing abstract art, and I liked realistic art,” says Martin, 70, of Arkadelphia. “I tried it, because I knew I could do realistic — but by the time I graduated, I had gotten so burned out that I quit painting for 35 years.”
Martin was born in Chicago but moved to, first, Indiana and then, as a fifth-grader, to Baton Rouge because of her father’s job as a plastics specialist.
As an adult, she moved with her husband, Mike, to Texas, where he was associate pastor of a new non-denominational church.
She had intended to be an art teacher from the start, but started out teaching preschool instead.
She had done occasional loosely structured, mixed media art projects with the preschoolers for 18 years when she discovered the private school where she taught needed a high school art teacher.
“Going from preschool to high school … well, they’re just a little taller,” she says of the switch.
Martin jazzed up art history lessons with a hands-on approach, assigning projects that involved drawing upside down on paper taped to the underside of a table, to emphasize a lesson on Michelangelo, and collecting sticks for painting outside to emphasize a chapter on cave art.
On her own time, she honed her creative skills.
“My favorites are portraits and animals and birds. I like the close-up,” she says. Her favorite piece, titled “Abundant Joy,” features a radiant little boy in a headdress. That piece was damaged while on exhibit at the international Pastel Festival in France and Martin re-created it.
One summer while she was working with preschoolers, Martin taught vacation Bible school at her church.
“I was talking about the gifts of God and each day had the kids celebrating a different gift from God. On the last day, we dressed up as clowns and celebrated all of God’s gifts,” Martin says.
Martin had taken her daughter to Circus World, the theme park in Haines City, Fla., originally owned by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
“I watched how they put on makeup and I bought some makeup thinking I could make up her face, so I had the makeup and I made myself up as a clown,” Martin says. “I went to school and I made up all the kids’ faces and we celebrated and I came home and told my husband, ‘You know, I really enjoyed this.'”
She started visiting hospitals and nursing homes as a clown, and within a few weeks she heard about a clown ministry workshop in Chicago.
“My husband sent me to Chicago and I started clowning,” she says.
She went back to that workshop every year, and she went to Clown Camp in La Crosse, Wis.
“It was run by a man who would invite famous clowns in to teach all different aspects of clowning — makeup, riding unicycles, juggling, balloon animals, prop making, the business of clowning, just whatever you wanted to know,” Martin says. “People said I was really gifted so I started teaching there. I ended up being the World Clown Association President in 1991 and 1992 and I got to lead the parade at Disney World and I got to clown at the White House at the annual Easter Egg Roll.”
Martin was invited to the International Clown Summit, with clowns from all over the world gathering in Dalkeith, Scotland.
She also appeared on a television show, “Buckskin and Friends.”
“It was all throughout Louisiana, and Texas,” Martin says of the show. “I would be on every weekend, and I would use some sort of skit or whatever with Buckskin. He did the straight man and I’d be the funny person.”
Being a clown has been fun, sure, and it has been emotionally rewarding. A woman Martin met in a nursing home had not interacted with anyone since her arrival but played along with Martin’s silly tricks and even gave her a hug.
On international mission trips, Martin slipped into a “hug-ologist” persona to cross language barriers in Siberia, Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Martin and her husband moved to Arkadelphia a couple of years ago to be closer to their son, Michael, who lives in Nashville, Tenn. They stopped to visit a friend in Arkadelphia on their way back home to Texas after deciding against relocating to Nashville.
“I said, ‘You know, I could maybe live here,'” she says.
They found a house almost immediately.
“God just led us here,” she says.
Martin illustrated a children’s book series, featuring a Basset hound named Mr. Spickles, written by the friend she visited in Arkadelphia. She teaches private art classes from a studio in her home.
Martin hasn’t done much clowning since moving to Arkadelphia.
“I don’t do it as often,” she says. “I still love going on mission trips and I would really like to do it again, so I don’t know if I’m finished or not.”
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