Joe Lee at Home
This is Joe Lee
With a degree in medieval history from Indiana University Joe Lee decided to do his graduate studies at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Clown College. He subsequently worked for Ringling Brothers, and for King Brothers-Cole, and Hoxie Brothers Circuses.
He liked the work and the traveling but left the circus when "I realized that it was like a small town. You're eating and living with 60, 70, maybe 80 people. When neighbors were feuding it was impossible not to get involved."
Joe's next stop was New York City where every weekend he would put on his seersucker suit, black and white spectator shoes, and a big straw boater and head down to the Metropolitan Museum where he sold postcards of his ink drawings. One day a young woman on roller skates stopped to admire his work. She suggested he learn to etch and took him to the Art Student's League. The school finished the process of making him an artist. "Eventually I stayed long enough to become an assistant instructor," he says.
Joe lived in the City for, "7 or 8 years. After awhile the pressures of living in New York City came to be too much. The trees looked like they were chained to keep them from pulling up their roots and walking out of town."
He returned to Indiana. "Now I work for a lot more New York publishers than I ever did when I was living there."
Joe illustrated and wrote for Writers and Readers publishing's "Beginners" series. His first project for them was one very close to his heart: The History of Clowns for Beginners. "I wanted to reclaim the disrepute that clowning had fallen into. When people thought of clown they thought of Ronald McDonald or Bozo, not Joey Grimaldi or the Kachina clowns of the Pueblos in the American southwest. There was this great connection across cultural times and meanings about what clowns were. That was a project I really wanted to do."
Since then Joe has provided illustration for books about Jung, Postmodernism, Shakespeare, and Eastern Philosophy as well as Dante for Beginners, which he also wrote.
Cover: The History of Clowns for Beginners
From Clowns Back Cover
Joe was born Olney, Illinois, "which is notorious for having the only population of white squirrels in the world. They started out as one mating pair that were found by a couple of hunters around the turn of the century. They prospered because everybody protected them. When I was a kid there were thousands. Now there are only a couple hundred that are still surviving
"I grew up in Greene County, Indiana, down in Worthington. I had one of those small rural town sort of upbringings. We'd work on farms in the summer and basketball in the winter.
"My dream as a kid, the only thing I wanted to be, was a Knight of the Round Table. My father liked to read and so I would go with him to the library and I found a book by Andrew Lang called Tales of the Round Table and I absolutely fell in love. That's why I started drawing. I had no artistic ambitions. I drew because it was a way of entering this world.
"I had no idea of what I was going to do after high school. I hadn't even thought of college. I talked to the guidance counselor one day. He gave me some college brochures and I saw one for Marian College in Indianapolis. I had been raised Catholic but I had no idea it was a Catholic College until I got there. This was the kind of guidance that I got! All of a sudden I'm seeing these nuns everywhere and I'm thinking, 'Gee, this is odd. Why are there so many nuns here?' And of course, then somebody said, 'Well, it's a Catholic college!'"
Writers and Readers Logo
After a year Joe transferred to Indiana University. "I was an art major but I didn't find IU's art department very welcoming. College should be a place that encourages people to find (things) out. Instead it was incredibly discouraging. So, I switched my major to history with my primary interest in medieval history because I figured I was going to draw anyway. I'd been drawing since I was about six years old.

"When I was in college I thought that I would start writing and illustrating children's books. Of course, I look back at those books I was writing and wonder 'What was I thinking? This is the strangest stuff!' I was very committed to these stories, great archetypal tales of love and danger."
One of those stories he called Grunt Grunt.
"It was about a woolly mammoth that fell in love with a Neanderthal man because he thinks the Neanderthal is his mother.
"I thought that that was one thing I could do because at that time I had no interest in teaching or anything like that. I decided that some career in the arts would be the way to go."
Anyone attempting a career in the arts knows that it's important to have a skill to fall back on, just in case. Joe decided on clowning as his profession.
"Since being a little kid I had been interested in performance and primarily in clowning because I'd seen a performer on Captain Kangaroo called the Banana Man. I loved this clown. He would come out in an overcoat from which he'd pull out all of these prop bananas, bass fiddles, violins and on and on. I found out later that he was very famous in vaudeville and in circuses. He would have a little suitcase and open that up into one case after another and each one of those opened up into little train cars. He would fill the train that he had built from his suitcases with all the props that had come out of his pockets and then chug away. It was just amazing."
At clown college, after 3 months of intense work on mime and juggling, "We did a final performance which was actually an audition for the circus. If you were offered a contract then you were given a diploma." Otherwise you received a certificate of attendance."
Banana Man
"What I realized it's those formative kind of years. It was in the old archetypal sense of the young man or young woman who has to go out into the world, have a certain number of adventures and then come back home. That's sort of what I did. "
Joe's illustrations can be found in many publications such as Our Brown County, Phi Delta Kappan, Cricket, Skeptic, the Indiana Alumni Magazine, Technos, and Tricycle. He was an editorial cartoonist for the Bloomington Independent (AKA Bloomington Voice) for eleven years and is currently performing the same function for the Bloomington Herald-Times on Saturdays. His comic strop "Existential Funnies" can be seen every Thursday in the Indiana Daily Student.
Self Portrait
Joe has been teaching cartoon art and illustration at The John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana for the previous 9 years. "I always tell kids to read because the problem isn't that you can't develop drawing skills. It's not a mystery. Like doing push ups, you keep building those muscles. What you need is something to draw. If you read you've always got a big frame of reference." Joe also teaches clowning at the Bloomington Playwrights Project's School of Dramatic Arts.
When not volunteering for the Monroe County Humane Association, the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and other worthy organizations, he lives with his wife, Mary Bess, three cats, and two dogs (Toby and Jack).

Article written by Bill Weaver and originally published in the March 2000 issue of Our Brown County. To see more of Joe's work please visit the Liars Bunch Website and "Schiffler's Believe It or Else" at Our Brown County.
All images copyright © 2003 Joe Lee
Website design by Bill Weaver for WeaverCo.