Today Google is paying homage to a ubiquitous but little-known creator in pop culture history: Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby. That talking slab of green goo with the asymmetrical head, who first appeared on TV in 1955, has become so ingrained in our collective memory that he’s more of a symbol or metaphor than anything else. But where did he come from? Like Jim Henson, Art Clokey created ads for a living to finance his experimental art as a young man–before that very experimental vision itself became attractive to the suits as fodder for childrens’ programming.
This is “Gumbasia,” the jazzy stop-motion animated art film that Clokey made in 1953. According to Wikipedia, he intended it as a send-up of Disney’s Fantasia, whose pristine hand-drawn animation and classical vision probably didn’t appeal much to artsy 1950s hepcats. Clokey created the music-video-like “Gumbasia” according to the precepts of a filmmaking theory called “Kinesthetic Film Principles” espoused by Clokey’s art-school mentor at USC, Slavko Vorkapich.
As often happens, Clokey was tutoring a Hollywood producer’s son for extra cash on the side, and the producer took a shine to him. He invited Clokey to screen “Gumbasia” at 20th Century Fox, fell in love with it, and hooked Clokey up with Tom Sarnoff at NBC with a seven-year contract to produce a children’s show… which would become Gumby.
Corporate media and advertising have been strip-mining the minds of artists for profit since time immemorial, but occasionally something timeless comes out of it. Gumby might be a punchline these days, but as a piece of pop-culture design for kids with a hip appeal for adults (much like the Muppets, which appeared almost simultaneously in 1956), it’s outlasted just about everything else. Will Dora The Explorer be so lucky? I doubt it.