Featured Artist: Albert Alter

Albert Alter clowing around.
Albert Alter clowing around (we know, the joke is not original).

Albert Alter – actor, physical comedian, clown, mime, fire eater, funny guy, Professional Fool, 2006 Sunburst Artist of the Year – grew up in Greeneville, Tennessee, “home of Davy Crockett and Andrew Johnson, the first president ever impeached by a Republican congress.” Albert has toured internationally, performing and teaching physical comedy, clown and mime in the United States, Japan, Canada, Cambodia, Cuba, England and Vietnam. He toured as a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus and helped set up and served as the assistant director of the first Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College Japan in Tokyo, Japan. All of which has served as excellent preparation for teaching students through Young Audiences (which he’s been doing for nearly 30 years).

What is your art practice outside of teaching? I perform as a clown, a physical comedian, or mime. I do “Clown Rounds” at Randall Children’s Hospital on the pediatric floors and in the Children’s Emergency room, and enjoy photography and designing water features.

How long have you taught with Young Audiences? Since shortly after the Grand Coulee Dam was completed!! Since about 1985, much longer than any of the current YA staff members have worked!

A student puts on his clown face as part of an Albert Alter in-school residency.
A student puts on his clown face as part of an Albert Alter in-school residency.

How does Oregon inspire your art making? The diverse beautiful regions of the state, and the creativity and quirkiness of the people inspire me. There now is a vibrant growing community of circus and vaudeville performers.

What fuels your creative practice? Observing people, animals and life and how they work and do not work. Clowns and mimes are like mirrors reflecting back what we see, sometimes with a slight distortion! Caffeine helps as well, but my wife tries to control my intake.

If you could be any animal, what would you be? I am in awe of the multitude of life forms from viruses (not an animal I know) to whales, and bed bugs but to choose I perhaps would either be an Asian rhino or an eagle.

What is one of your earliest art memories? Acting in grade school plays, and attending Columbia Arts Management Community Concerts Events that came through my small town. One famous violist in the middle of a school recital told me to sit back down in my seat. That is how I learned about correct audience behavior.

I [also] learned that art critics do not always appreciate your art. My mother was not happy or appreciative of my “abstract carving” I did on the side of our piano!!! I had a new pocket knife and was trying it out!!! Then there is the time I almost burned the house down but that was science NOT art!!!

What’s the best thing about being a Young Audiences teaching artist? Working with the students. Exciting them about art or art and science, learning. I like helping them explore the role of art in society and in their own daily lives. And try to prepare them and inspire them for living life to the fullest.

Albert Alter perfoming at the Klamath County Library.
Albert Alter perfoming at the Klamath County Library.

Why is art important to kids? I think the real question is “Why is art important to everyone?” Yes I am sharing my art forms with young students, but I have also taught the same things at Elderhostel, and in prisons. I want to let kids know they are already artists, and have the ability to become better in a field of art they select. I like to explain the chosen forms of their art may change. But they are never to say, “I am not an artist.” They can say, “I am not a pianist—- YET.” Which means if they try they can learn to play the piano, dance, paint, sing, write poetry, etc. I believe we all can and “do art” of some type, many of us try to deny it because we are not as good as someone else we see.

What teacher or artist was inspirational to you as a kid? I grew up at a time and in a community where we had arts in schools. I took piano, played in the band, acted in plays, drew pictures, designed houses for our own fun. Fortunately my parents and their friends were very supportive and encouraging of my efforts. My clown character is greatly influenced by Red Skelton.

Albert Alter pulling the dog from a hat in a promotional moment for the Clown Bazaar.
Albert Alter pulling the dog from a hat in a promotional moment for the Clown Bazaar.

Who is your art hero now? I like the work of Bill Irwin the first performing artist to ever win a MacArthur or “genius” award and he won it for his work in clown theater. He just opened his new show “Old Hats” in New York City.

What is a favorite memory of creating or performing? I remember being the opening for the Smothers Brothers, at the Britt Festival. But the work I now do in the hospitals I think is some of my best work and most rewarding to all. Especially walking down a hall still hearing laughter coming from the room you just left. I have many “moments of grace” like that.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? I have been a chemical engineer, a social worker, a touring theater manager, a performer and a fool. It would be fun to be a politician so there finally would be a real “PROFESSIONAL” clown in politics!! I think it would be fun to be a traveling photographer for a NGO or charity and showcase the work they do.

And when asked to “Ask and answer your own question!” Albert asked: What are you going to be when you grow up? Let me think on that and I’ll get back top you.

To send Albert a joke, or look at yet another funny picture, visit him online: www.albertalter.com

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