Gumby creator Art Clokey tripped at a clinic founded by LSD revolutionary Timothy Leary.
All of cartoonland has questionable logic. Mickey Mouse can stretch his arms out like strings caught in the wind. Daffy Duck can take a shotgun blast to the face and walk away. Odd moments serve as punchlines in most cartoons, but they are the entirety of Gumby. In his colorfully delirious world of clay, Gumby phases in and out of books and toys. Things feel dreamlike. One moment, Gumby is picked up by a mad crane operator, the next he’s cruising in a jalopy with his doppelganger from a mirror. Your average Gumby cartoons can feel like an acid trip, so it should come as no surprise that the LSD movement was one of the inspirations for this pop cultural cornerstone.
“When I created Gumby stories I was not operating on my feelings,” said Gumby creator Art Clokey in the documentary Gumby Dharma. “I was operating on existence, like being in a trance. Not your feelings but your core. I was allowed to participate in the creation of something.”
Art Clokey was a child of the depression. His first experiences with clay were wet clods of mud. As he got older, Clokey attempted to clarify a spiritual sense he felt within himself. He tried becoming an Episcopal seminary but “it didn’t take,” said Clokey. He was one of the co-creators of the Christian children’s program Davey and Goliath, though it didn’t seem as much of a personal creation as Gumby. It wasn’t until the 60s that Clokey’s worldview and aesthetics began to make sense.
During America’s hippy years, Clokey’s interest in Western dogma caved to Eastern philosophies. Art Clokey’s son, Joe Clokey, said even Gumby’s green hue has a hippy-dippy origin. Green is the color of chlorophyll which “turns light into life. Gumby is the product of light. And light is love. So Gumby is a product of love.”
Art Clokey started hanging out with the likes of musician Frank Zappa and transcendental philosopher Alan Watts. Clokey says that two of Gumby’s friends, Prickle and Goo, were based on an anecdote from Watts that “there are two types of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey.”
Clokey signed himself up for a psychology clinic co-founded by LSD revolutionary Timothy Leary. There, Clokey participated in trials with acid and even, geez, carbogen.
“These trips were very spiritual to some people,” said Clokey. “This world fades out to black. Then it fades in. The most amazing dimension of existence, and visions. I told the psychiatrist who was giving it to me that we need to put this on television at once!”
The thrill of these drugs meshed well with Clokey’s artistic sensibilities. Clokey found beauty in wooziness. His first animated film, a pre-Gumby experiment called Gumbasia, was made in his father’s garage and is composed of experimental patterns and sequences with clay. In art, Clokey prescribed to the film theory of Serbian lecturer Slavko Vorkapić, a process he describes as ‘kinesthetic film principals.’ “(Film) impinges upon the eye cells in such a way that it stimulates the autonomic nerve cell system,” said Clokey. “Just below the level of seasickness, of nausea, is the peak of excitement.”
Gumby may share candy store shelves with Betty Boop lunch boxes, but his clay world is of a much different era, with a much higher state of mind.