When Clokey was 9 years old, his parents divorced and he stayed with his father. After his father died in a car accident, he went to live with his mother in California, but was placed in a half-way house orphanage after one year because his stepfather did not want him around. At age 12, he was adopted by Joseph W. Clokey, a classical music composer and organist who taught music at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and who encouraged young Arthur's artistic inclinations. The aesthetic environment later became the home of Art Clokey's most famous character, Gumby, whose name derives from Art Clokey's childhood experiences during summer visits to his grandfather's farm, when he enjoyed playing with the clayey mud called "gumbo."
At Webb School in Claremont, young Clokey came under the influence of teacher Ray Alf, who took students on expeditions digging for fossils and learning about the world around them. Clokey later studied geology at Pomona College, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1943.
Art Clokey also made a few highly experimental and visually inventive short clay animation films for adults, including his first film Gumbasia, the visually rich Mandala—described by Clokey as a metaphor for evolving human consciousness—and the equally bizarre The Clay Peacock, an elaboration on the animated NBC logo of the time. These films have only recently become available via the Rhino box-set release of Gumby's television shorts, all appearing on the bonus DVD (disc 7).
In 2007, Princeton Architectural Press published an interview between Art Clokey and Dorian Devins (illustrated by Glenn Head) in "The Best of LCD (Lowest Common Denominator): The Art and Writing of WFMU" edited by Dave the Spazz.