Every afternoon this week, Heidi Rider has dragged herself out of bed onto a blanket in her backyard, painted her face with a colorful foundation, red nose, pink frown, some variation of eyebrows, and basked in the Vegas sun until dark.
It was just a matter of time before a clown came down with COVID and well … here we are, folks!!! It’s just like you’d expect—sad and both kinds of funny. Or, as Rider likes to say, “HE HE HA HA.”
Yesterday, the performance artist painted buck teeth and a ragged unibrow above her signature blue-eyed, thousand-yard stare, captioning the resulting Instagram photo, simply, “Despair.” The day before it was “Grief” and the day before that it was “Busted heart.” For “Election,” Rider opted for a grotesque, half-orange half-white face with mournful eyes. For “Covid,” she gave herself a sloppy, angry unibrow with greasy tears that drop below the collar of her Circus Circus T-shirt (though she actually works at Caesars Palace where she is a clown in the hit show, Absinthe).
On a normal day, when the Dell’Arte International-trained performer isn’t on stage, she is drawing messed up clowns, maniacally (toplesslessly) blowing up balloons in a gallery, or running around Fremont Street, dressed as a living, breathing, decommissioned mailbox, heckling people to “put money in [her] slot.”
I want to ask Heidi Rider a million questions. Over Zoom, and—when Zoom fails—over the phone, she answers about two dozen, talking in a high-pitched voice that I am absolutely positive has been described as “cute” before because it very much is. Makeup-free, Rider is one of those almost-middle-aged women who—despite her silvering hair—could pass as a teenager. We talk quarantine, clown logic, and making “white trash art.” We discuss the ins and outs of makeup. I invite myself to a Garbage Pile Babiez parade and receive an ambiguous answer. Our interview goes looooooooooooooong.
How are you doing?
I saw on Instagram that you came down with COVID. Are you OK?
It’s a little bit like what we’re going to see until January 20th, right? Its nails are clawing, “I’m not leaving your bodyyyyy ahhhhhhhh!” It’s a little bit like Trump not leaving office. The part that I can compare to the flu … that part’s all gone. God, when they talk about COVID fatigue and COVID brain, that’s the part that hangs on really hard.
Did you go back to Absinthe and then have to leave right away?
No! The day I was supposed to go back in and start watching shows and training was the same day that I came down with a fever. It was like the first day. … I didn’t even show up yet. And then COVID got me. It’s so crazy.
I hope it just keeps getting better for you. That’s tough to have something like that linger. How are things going in a partially functioning gig economy? Do you still have benefits, or are you a part of a union?
Everybody is suffering so hard. We’re all on furlough. Luckily, for me, our production company has given us the gift of extending our health insurance benefits month-by-month as they’ve been trying to hold this space for returning. So that’s been a blessing. The crew workers have their own union, but I don’t belong to any kind of a union.
What do you do as a performer when you can’t perform?
I’ve just been channeling everything into my home studio, but it’s been really hard. In the beginning, there was a lot of grieving. Now I’ve adjusted to not having that kind of interaction with people.
[With COVID], my friend Alisha [Kerlin, director of the Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV] encouraged me to paint my face, because I was feeling like it was impossible to do anything. I felt so emotionally deflated. And then, physically, it’s extremely taxing. It’s a really serious virus. And I was feeling so—what’s the word? God, COVID brain is so real … devastated. I was really devastated. And the only thing that helps me when I feel despair is to make things, which I couldn’t do because I work standing up, and I was exhausted. So now I drag a blanket out into my backyard because it’s been so nice outside, and I just set up in the grass, where I just sit on the ground and relax and paint my face. I think I’m just going to keep making this series until it tells me that it’s time to do something else.
That is so fantastic. … OK, so what I’ve been wanting to know since I found your website is kind of just everything about you. Can you tell me your entire backstory?? What was your upbringing like? How did you become a clown?
Oh my God. Um yeah, let me try. So I grew up in a family that was really poor. When I was little, my father was in the military, so we followed him around—we would move like an average of once a year. I think I went to 12 different public schools, and I was also homeschooled for three years. My only real stable connection was with my siblings, so we would just go into imagination world, right? We would write plays together and create characters and make puppets, and we would make our parents watch these plays all the time. And I think what happened is that I started to develop the role in the family of the person who keeps things happy—or keeps things light—when things were really hard most of the time, and often really sad. Starting over all the time, always being the new girl, I was always so scared that people were going to think I’m a weirdo, that they’re going to laugh at me, not want to be my friend. And that happened a lot. I was always kind of this outsider, so I would just go into my own inner world. I was always drawing, always making a lot of art.
When did you get into clowning?
When I was growing up, I thought for sure that I was going to be a visual artist and that all of the performing stuff was just playtime. But then, when I went back to high school—I was homeschooled from seventh grade to almost 11th grade—I was the last person to enroll. There were no classes left, so I had to make a choice for this one time period. I could either take Shakespeare or I could take calculus, and I was like, “I don’t know anything about Shakespeare but I’m sure as hell am not doing calculus.” ….So I took the Shakespeare class and met some weirdos. I started experimenting in theater, but it was always a little bit dissatisfying for me, because traditional theater is really very structured. I did improv, but that wasn’t it either. Then I got to play Harpo Marx, and that kind of turned something on. I didn’t understand that he was a clown, but I understood that he was a really big comic character. So I started to think in that direction, and I ended up going to Hunter College in New York City, where I got an opportunity to play a male character—like an extreme, broad, male character. It was like, “Oh, this heightened transformation and extreme, physical modification in character is where I want to be … but I want to be in that world without a script.”
So you were clowning, but you didn’t know it at the time.
Yeah, exactly. Then my [teacher] told me about this school called Dell’Arte—which is a physical theater school that teaches you ensemble physical theater through different blocks. So first, you do things that are more in the world of neutrality, like neutral mask. And then you go through commedia dell’arte. Then you work with masking and you do these really broad archetype characters. And then we went to melodrama and after melodrama, it was clown. … So, I went to the summer program there, left Hunter, and stayed in California to do the full program. After that, I moved back to New York and I finished school, then I went back and did art school. What I ended up finding at Dell’Arte was clown. There’s something about the really, really intense deep vulnerability of clown that is right in the middle of where I want to be all the time. It’s a super terrifying place. So what I try to do is approach everything in the way that I believe clown works, as far as clown logic.
Can you explain clown logic?
For me, it’s about approaching something from a place of play, openness, not knowing, and extreme vulnerability. So, I will be affected by whatever it is that happens in the moment. I present something. I get something back. The response goes back and forth, and this shifting happens, depending on how we’re receiving each other. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily a positive thing. Some people don’t like it. I work a lot with direct eye contact, and people get really uncomfortable with that. It’s hard to be looked at, and it’s hard to look. It’s hard to see and be seen. And so, we’re in this place that’s, like, super-electric.
But I think even inside of it, [clowning] resists definition. For me, it’s all about meeting this place as a human and, as humans, we have this desire—I might even use the word need—to know where we are, what we’re doing, how we can be ready for whatever thing that’s going to come. We want to feel like we have some kind of control over our lives, because it helps us to feel a little bit safe. But it’s not real. We don’t have any control. And I think that being in that place as a clown, even if just for a moment, it gives somebody else permission to do that, too, in their own way.
When you’re reacting to people and you’re displaying these sometimes very exaggerated emotions—how much are you feeling those feelings, and how much are you just reflecting them or performing them?
Personally, they always come from a real place. I know there are other clowns who do it in different ways. If I have to force it … I will, and the emotion will come, but for me it’s never about being self indulgent in emotion. It’s more like opening a channel for the true emotion to come out. And then I let it, and I respond to it, or with it. The performance that I did in the window, specifically, was extremely emotional.
Yes, let’s talk about the window performance at ASAP gallery [last month]. It was called “Pleeeze Luv Me,” I think. What does that title mean to you?
So, just that performance was “Pleeeze Luv Me.” I called the show itself, with all the work, “They’re All Going to Laugh At You.” That title is pretty personal, because it comes a little bit from growing up thinking that every time I’m the new girl, somebody’s just going be like, “Who’s this loser?” And so it’s sort of like going back to that place of control and shifting the circumstances so that laughter can happen in a way that is more generative instead of destructive.
Just to set the scene with the performance—you’re standing in this display window in the gallery, facing out at the street. There’s a picnic table, and you’re dressed in a picnic tablecloth from the waist down. From the waist up you have on full makeup, a balloon collar, and no shirt, with this kind of umbilical-cord-trunk-thing connecting you to the ceiling as you blow up a bunch of balloon animals. It’s a pretty pandemic-specific piece. I guess my question is, can you talk about the limitations going into this show and how you dealt with them?
Originally, I really wanted to do a performance, but I wasn’t going to because of the pandemic and the restrictions around it. So I was talking with a friend of mine, and she said something about the window, and it just sparked an idea that if I could actually close myself off in the window—in a way that [I am] protecting myself and other people from from the exchange of air—then it would be possible to do some sort of a performance. And it would actually, because of those restrictions, be a heightened kind of exposure. So I just leaned into the restrictions … really isolating myself, which is how I feel anyway. Just helpless. I think most of us feel like that right now. That’s also one of the reasons why I cut my shirt off and painted my body, so that there would be even more exposure. I also wanted there to be this effect with my wig that was very kind of, like, clown-masculine. And my makeup was really quite ugly.
Yes, your makeup looked pretty grotesque, especially your mouth and eyes. Is that what you were going for?
Yeah, I really exaggerated the grotesque mouth. I painted my eyes black so that they would be holes with a big, green unibrow. And then I built a wig that was mostly bald except for a patch of hair on the top of my forehead and a ring of hair around the back of my ears so that I looked like a balding man. It was red yarn, so it was very obviously not hair, and I think you could even see some of my hair under the wig cap. I really love for my images to have ragged edges. I don’t ever want to look polished. When I build my costumes, I don’t necessarily have a plan…I have a pile of stuff. So that installation, I had a pile and just started building. I didn’t know what I was going to do except that I needed to figure out how to wall myself off. And that’s basically what I do when I make my costumes, too. I think, “OK, I want there to be circus signifiers, but I don’t want to be circus specific.”
I want to talk about the makeup a little more. Were you a makeup girl growing up? Have you always liked putting makeup on?
Yeah, I did. There was a time in my life when I thought I wanted to be a makeup artist. And there was a long time when I used makeup to try to make myself pretty. I never thought I was ugly, but I just didn’t see any sort of special beauty. So, you know, maybe with makeup I could kind of transform myself. And that was more about what drew me to makeup in the beginning. But then over time, it’s a more complicated story. What actually happened is a combination between playing the really exaggerated male characters that I told you about and getting to put on a big mustache and exaggerate my eyebrows—transform my face in a way that felt very different from who I was and that made me feel more free in my face.
And also—I know this is elliptic and this might sound a little bit weird—but when I was in art school, I had this amazing teacher, a person who changed my life forever. Her name is Carrie Moyer. She’s this amazing painter. I was really, really struggling in my painting practice, I was just making these paintings that were not it. I was trying so hard to make something work, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. So my teacher challenged me. She told me to go into the studio and make a painting from start to finish in two hours, and I ended up making this painting of my sister and I as ponies running around our backyard. We always lived in these, like, busted up houses. And in this particular house, there was a fence that had fallen over, and my dad had propped it up with some ropes and tied it to a tree. My sister and I used that rope space around the tree as an imagined racetrack where we pretended we were ponies.
So, I just felt compelled to make this painting, where I had been trying to make all these figure paintings before. Anyway, when I showed my teacher, she was like, “Oh, this is your white trash painting.” I was like, “What?” Somehow this painting represented the direction that I needed to go. It felt like I was finally tapping into something. She told me to revisit John Waters and really dig into this kind of kitschy, loving embrace of the things and the people on the edges that are falling apart. So I started to think about embracing people who come from that world or from those experiences in my own life. … I started embracing all those things that I’ve been trying to hide about myself for so long. I love kitschy things. I am a maximalist, not a minimalist. I don’t like artspeak. I just want to follow the impulse of things that make me light up. And some of those things are, like, blacking my teeth out, or giving myself a unibrow. Or giving myself a big ass.
You did a video series about the Postal Service called “Decommissioned,” where you and a friend are dressed up as USPS mailboxes. You’ve painted yourselves blue, and you’re running around just being ridiculous. I think there are four episodes. What was the inspiration behind that performance? It looked like a lot of fun.
It was really fun. It was fucking hot. It was 110 degrees painted in those boxes. The inspiration behind it was my friend in the piece, Grace Lusk, who is also a performer here in town. She’s been doing a lot of thinking around political work, and so she just had this idea. What if we did something with the decommissioning and defunding of the Postal Service? What if we were mailboxes? So we just said “yes” to each other, and I engineered the mailboxes, and we built them. Then we took them into the streets. It was pretty scary because we were putting ourselves at risk during a pandemic. We didn’t know how people were going to react to us or how close they were going to try to get, but we wanted to meet the moment. Bring awareness to just one of the ways that our democracy is being corroded [and we wanted to do it] through comedy.
It was unbelievable how easy it was for people to talk to us or to interact with us. And for the most part, most people were very curious about what exactly it was that we were doing. Some people were like, “I’m gonna vote by mail!” or we’d find all of these crazy characters who just felt compelled to come over and speak to us.
Yeah, there was a moment—I think it was in the first episode—where you and Grace were standing outside of a convenience store, trying to get people to put stuff in your “slot” when this man walks by. You can tell he doesn’t agree with your stance on the Postal Service, but he was put in this position of having to argue with a mailbox, and then there’s this moment when you kind of see him realize how absurd the situation is. It was a great interaction.
Yeah, he was just denying our existence and denying the reality of the situation, and I love that Grace was like, “We’re standing right in front of you.” We’re not grounded to our spot, we’re drifting in space looking to do the thing that is our federal job. And it’s just so absurd that it’s happening. I don’t know, sometimes I feel like we can’t really have a conversation or a moment like that if we didn’t look as ridiculous as we did.
I think that’s probably true. OK, on a completely different note, if you ever do a sequel to Garbage Pile Babiez (the trash parade), I want to be in it.
Oh my God! Alright, so look at these bags. This is all of my storage for the Garbage Pile Babiez. This is the costume here wrapped up. I have a little dream for that. … I want to do a huge installation that is like the Carlsbad Caverns of these trash piles, so that there are stalagmites and stalactites of trash. I definitely want there to be a sound component of the installation, probably some olfactory elements—not like garbage, but maybe like cotton candy. And then somewhere inside, I want this creature to just be hidden in this pile, talking to itself. Just talking. It lives in this world. It will be there way after any of us. We’ll all be dead. Long dead.
The natural conclusion of our species is a big old garbage baby!
Basically. My clown partner [Alec Jones-Trujillo] and I, we did this pile together to talk about consuming things and just repeating commercial jingles and just fucking garbage. For what? We don’t need any of this trash! We don’t need to buy so many things and keep creating this garbage that we’re burying ourselves in. It’s meaningless.
And you know, it was such a gift that we were able to do it for the Goldwell Museum [opening]. And I was really scared because I was so worried that the people in the town—who had such generosity—would feel like we were making fun of them. I was so scared that that was going to happen. And it didn’t. People were laughing and enjoying the absurdity of the characters. I was really scared. But it was so fun. It was so weird.
This interview has been modified for length and clarity.
To see more of Heidi’s work, go to her website or check out her Instagram.