Lillian Faison worked 41 years as a nurse. Now semi-retired, she spends a great deal of time working as a clown — her goal is to bring joy and a smile in every face
By John Addyman
Maybe it was the gold foil eyelashes and how she flashed and fluttered them.
Perhaps her smile. Big.
Her hair — every color of the rainbow and then some.
The little heart glued to the end of her nose.
And the jewel in the middle of her forehead.
Her dress, covered with stuffed animals and toys and all kinds of buttons like “Smile Inspector” and “If You’re Looking for Fun, Follow me” and “My Last Name is THE CLOWN.”
She wasn’t 10 seconds into the Irondequoit Library in a recent visit, but already kids had found her. They didn’t quite know what she was, but with her big smile and soft voice, kids felt something coming out of her and they flocked to it, every one with an unbidden smile. Every mom and dad with the kids was smiling, too.
That’s Lillian Faison’s effect on people when she clowns; when she dresses up and finds her inner child to share with others, when she senses the negative energy and overpowers it with warm and delight and fun. She reaches inside to find the core of her being and shares it with others.
She’s a clown.
Faison, 63, from Rochester, is semi-retired, but walking astride two semi-careers: taking care of elderly patients in their homes as an LPN and home aide, and bringing joy and smiles to anyone who’s grumpy or blue as a clown who’s known as Sunny Hope.
Her nursing career began 41 years ago after graduating from the Rochester School of Practical Nursing. She began at the Jewish Home and ended at St. Ann’s Community.
Along the way she tried her hand as one of the few female Rochester police officers and became the sales manager at WDKX–FM after starting as a volunteer and supporter at the first Black-operated station in Upstate New York. She was also a school nurse for two and a half years.
She got heavily involved in Toastmasters and eventually became the District 65 director, and even picked up a real estate license.
Faison retired as an LPN from St. Ann’s Community last March.
“I’m still a nurse,” she said. “But now I just do home care. When I semi-retired, I started looking for jobs and then I got all of these LPN jobs offered to me. There was too much on my plate. I had so much LPN work; I didn’t have time for clowning. There’s such a great need for LPNs. I saw these people in need and I said ‘I can take care of you and I can take care of you and I can take care of you — then all of a sudden I realized, ‘No, I can’t do all that.’”
“The light bulb came on: ‘Don’t you know you’re semi-retired?’ So, I had to make that adjustment on how to fill my time,” she continued. “Being a nurse used to bring me down at times, depending on how my co-workers were acting, just the frustration I would see at work. I would have good days and some days I wanted to crawl under the bus, under the bed, quit the job and go work at McDonalds.”
One day, she just told her co-workers, ’I’m going to go be a clown.’
“They would laugh every time I said that. For six years I said it: ‘I’m going to go be a clown,’” she said. “Then one day I was at St. Ann’s working in the rehab unit and one of my co-workers came through with a balloon flower in her hand. She said there was a clown in the other hall that got a knee replacement. I immediately went over there.”
She met Terry Holland, who is a clown named Wannabe. His wife, Kathy, is also a clown known as Kiddo.
“They were members of the local Grease Paint Alley Clowns. I told them I wanted to be a clown. Kathy said, ‘We have a clown class coming up and I’ll let you know when. Meanwhile, would you like to come over to my house and make some balloons?’ So I went over to her house, making squeaky balloon flowers and animals,” Faison said. “She called me when the class opened up and I went. I graduated on April 1 nine years ago.”
In clown school Faison learned makeup and props and the nature of clowns. She found out that a clown is unique in the entertainment world, being both an audience and a performer at the same time. A clown opens a door inside themselves to set their inner child free. It is that purity of soul that brings the reaction that clowns learn to expand.
Clowns are always turning themselves inside out to reflect what their audiences give them.
Faison explained it more simply: “I react to my audience. I have to read them and see who’s receptive. It’s very interesting. I did a gig at Salvatore’s for four Saturdays on East Ridge Road. There were people coming in and I didn’t think they’d like clowns or care for them, but then I eventually got to playing with them — they just lined up. You never really know. You have to read people. You have to feel them. I try not to be too overwhelming because sometimes people don’t like clowns or to be around clowns and then you can offend people.”
Stephen King didn’t do clowndom any favors with the main charter in the novel “IT,” and all clowns know there are people who think that clowns are creepy.
The first reaction of the kids in the Irondequoit Library was telling. Some stood back, trying to figure out what Sunny Hope was. One girl, perhaps 8 or 9, had no such qualms. She lunged at Faison with a big hug.
“We don’t normally touch, especially with COVID-19,” Faison said. “I have this big hand prop because kids love to do high-fives and I hold it up and they do their high-fives with it.
“Sometimes people are a little scared of clowns, but when they see me, I’m a different kind of clown,” she explained. “I know the power of people smiling and the energy of it, that’s why I want to do it. I feel there’s a very negative energy out here in Rochester. I’ve been experiencing it. I’m trying to promote people being happy and smiling. I don’t really find that type of energy here. I feel there’s a barrier or wall that’s keeping people [from] being friendly, but I still have a mission to do what I do. I’ve seen the results when people see me.
“As a nurse, I know the value and health benefits of laughter, smiles and being in a good mood. I love to see and make people laugh and smile. A smile creates a whole other look to a person’s face. Laughter creates endorphins and has the potential to help heal your body, mind and spirit.
“For me, clowning gives out positive energy to generate more positive energy. I know it works. I am pulled to be happy, positive and my spirit is comfortable with bringing whatever happiness I can into this world. So, my one of many vehicles to do this is by being Sunny Hope the Clown. Clowning calls me because it encompasses so many things I enjoy and strive to be.”
Faison doesn’t want to be alone in her quest to make as many people happy as she can. In the last year, she’s brought three new clowns to the Grease Paint Alley clown school and they’re all out there doing their clown things.
“There’s not many of us in Grease Paint Alley,” she added. “We used to have 80 members. Now we’re down to 40 and we have many 75-year-old members. We don’t have a huge influx of people coming in. Why? We’re not making people aware of what we do assertively, the value of clowns.”
She ticked off the things a person needs to be to be successful as a clown: friendly, happy, spontaneous, kind, imaginative, creative, smiling, patient.
“And don’t take yourself too seriously,” she advised. “Have a desire to bring joy and happiness and elevate another person’s mood.”
The mission statement of Grease Paint Alley is “to enrich the community with the art of clowning. Generously volunteering with commitment and unity, teaching to create smiles. We provide hope and love by practicing manners and kindness. Creating sunshine, laughter and friendships through each one of our colorful and unique characters spreading happiness and joy to everyone, young and old.”
You can follow these local clowns on Facebook or their website, www.greasepaintalleyclowns.weebly.com
Faison’s website is sunnyhope.agency and she, too, is on Facebook.
Faison has a simple way of looking at her role as clown: “I believe when people are in a happy mood and I am in a happier state we can be kinder to ourselves and our world. Laughter and smiles are food for the spirit, mind and body.”
Top image: Clown Sunny Hope welcomes kids to the Irondequoit Library in a recent visit.