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Clowns Put Happy Face On Artist

June 20, 1986|RICK VANDERKNYFF

Laguna Beach artist Robert Gentry draws a variety of subjects, but his first love is the circus.

"Anything connected with the circus, I like," said Gentry in an interview at his home. Clown portraits are regular best sellers for the 58-year-old artist, who confessed that he once thought about becoming a clown himself until he learned about the difficult and unpleasant manual labor--cleaning up after animals, helping move equipment--that often comes with the job. Beside, he explained, "I don't think my wife would have liked it, my being gone for eight months out of the year."

Gentry's latest circus-themed work, "Emmett's Tea Party," will be introduced by the artist from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Mole Hole, a gallery and gift shop in Dana Point.

The Cincinnati-born Gentry (not to be confused with the high-profile Laguna Beach councilman) said his interest in drawing was cultivated while he served in the Army during the Korean War. Gentry was often asked to create drawings for mess halls and officers' clubs, and eventually he found himself assigned to make charts for atomic bomb research. "I had no idea what I was working on," said the artist, who did much of his work while locked away in a high-security vault.

After he left the service, he started making commercial displays for a store in Atlanta. The store owner talked Gentry into entering art school--the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

This was Gentry's first real exposure to circus life. He recalled skipping classes to watch rehearsals and of seeing such performers as clown star Emmett Kelly walking through town.

When he finished school, Gentry took a job organizing displays at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota. There he got to know many of the circus performers, but he was laid off when tourism in the city dropped.

He and his wife headed west, landing in Laguna Beach. The marriage broke up, but Gentry stayed in the beach town and has lived there for all but two of his 28 years in California. For the last 14 years he has lived alone in a tiny wooden house on a bluff overlooking Coast Highway, with a sweeping view of the coastline to the south. The house, which Gentry estimates is 70 years old, is a remnant of a quieter time when Laguna Beach was a small artists' colony.

Inside, the house is crammed with artworks and memorabilia that Gentry has accumulated over the years, everything from a small plastic Christmas tree that hangs from the rafters to a clown mask that he picked up on his last circus visit. Gentry still attends the circus every year but feels the quality has dropped since the glory days he remembers. He especially mourns the disappearance of the great clown stars, such as Kelly and Lou Jacobs.

Gentry turns out about 10 new drawings each year, which he generally releases in editions of 150, and he hand-colors each print before sale. "Either people or animals, one or the other," the artist said of his subject matter, which is not restricted to clowns. "I guess I've been a people-watcher since the time I was a little boy."

For the past 11 years, Gentry has sold his works at Laguna Beach's yearly Sawdust Festival (which this year runs from July 5 through Aug. 31). He also travels extensively to sell at other art shows.

"So far, I've stayed ahead of the bill collectors," said Gentry, whose art has not made him a wealthy man. "I just feel lucky that I've been able to survive at what I love to do."

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