Joseph B. O’Sickey, Painter
1974 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR VISUAL ARTS
The title conferred on him by Plain Dealer art critic Steve Litt in a 1994 article, “the dean of painting in northeast Ohio,” must have pleased Joseph O'Sickey. It was more than 30 years since he had burst onto the local (and national) art scene. O’Sickey
was already in his 40s in that spring of 1962 when he had his first
one-man show at the Akron Art Museum and was signed by New York’s
prestigious Seligmann Galleries, founded in 1888. In the decade and a half that followed, he would have
seven one-man shows at Seligmann, which had showed the
work of such trailblazing figures as Seurat, Vuilliard, Bonnard, Leger
and Picasso, and appear in all of the group shows.
took the Best Painting award in the 1962 May Show at the Cleveland
Museum of Art (CMA). He and would capture the same honor in
back-to-back May Shows in 1964 and ’65, and again in 1967. The
remarkable thing, noted the Plain Dealer’s Helen Borsick, was that he accomplished this sweep in a variety of
painterly styles, even using that most hackneyed of subjects, flowers. “The subject doesn’t matter,” he told her, “what the artist brings to it is the important thing.” O’Sickey’s garden and landscape paintings were big and bold, eschewing
delicate detail in favor of vitality and impact. The great art
collector and CMA benefactor Katherine C. White, standing before one of
O’Sickey’s vivid garden paintings, compared the sensation to “being
pelted with flowers.”
Though he might represent an entire
blossom with one or two smudged brush strokes or a stem with a simple
sweep of green, O’Sickey rejected the moniker of Impressionist—or
Pointillist or Abstract painter or Expressionist. “My work,” he said,
“is a direct response to the subject. I believe in fervor and poetic
metaphor. I try to make each color and shape visible and identifiable
within the context of surrounding colors and shapes. A yellow must hold
its unique quality from any another yellow or surrounding color, and
yet read as a lemon or an object, by inference. It does not require
shading or modeling—the poetic evocation is part of the whole.”
“The subject,” O’Sickey used to tell
his students at Kent State University, where he taught painting from
1964 to 1989, “has to be seen as a whole and the painting has to be
structured to be seen as a whole.” He liked to think of it as “a process of controlled rapture.”
When, in the 1960s, fond childhood
memories drew him to the zoo, he found himself responding to the caged
animals in their lonely dignity (or indignity) with sharp-edged, almost
silhouette-like forms that evoked Matisse’s paintings and cut-paper
assemblages. One observer was left with the impression that the artist
had “looked at these animals, past daylight and into dusk when they
lose their details in shadow and become pure shapes, with eyes that are
seeing the viewer rather than the other way around. This is a world of
shape and essence,” wrote Helen Borsick. “All is simplification.”
attributed his ability to capture his subjects with just a few
strokes—in an almost iconographic way—to a rigorous exercise he had
imposed upon himself over a period of several months. Limiting his
tools to a large No. 6 bristle brush and black ink, he set himself the
task of drawing his pet parakeet and the other small objects in its
cage (cuttlebone, feeding dish, tinkling bell) hundreds of times. The
exercise gave him “invaluable insights into painting. . . . Because of
the crudity of the medium, every part of these drawings had to be an
invention and every mark had to have its room and clarity.” Then he
began adding one color at a time—“still with the same brush and
striving for the same clarity”—and headed off to the zoo where “the
world opened up to me. I learned how little it took to express the
in Detroit at the close of the First World War, O’Sickey grew up in St.
Stanislaus parish near East 65th and Fleet on Cleveland’s southeast
side. (The apostrophe was inserted into the family’s proud Polish name
by a clerk at Ellis Island.) An early interest in drawing and painting
may have been kindled by the presence on the walls of Charles Dickens
Elementary School, one of only three grade schools in the district with
a special focus on the arts, of masterful watercolors by such Cleveland
masters as Paul Travis, Frank N. Wilcox and Bill Coombes.
As a youngster O’Sickey took drawing
classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and he and his brother spent
hours copying famous paintings; while a student at East Tech High
School in the mid-’30s, he attended free evening classes in life
drawing with Travis and Ralph Stoll at the John Huntington Art and
Polytechnic Institute, and Saturday classes at the Cleveland School
(later the Cleveland Institute) of Art, where he earned his degree in
1940 under the tutelage of Travis, Stoll and such other legendary
figures as Henry Keller, Carl Gaertner, William Eastman, Kenneth Bates and Viktor Schreckengost, subsequently serving with the U.S. Army in Africa, India and Burma.
After the War O’Sickey spent
a year teaching at Ohio State University. There he had a two-person
show with another young painter, Roy Lichtenstein, who became a
life-long friend, and found a sympathetic spirit in Hoyt Sherman, who
was then just completing his groundbreaking work, Drawing by Seeing: A New Development in the Visual Arts through the Training of Perception. As a teenager, O’Sickey
had instinctively rebelled against the academic tradition of teaching
art students to draw the figure (and other objects) in isolation from
“Things have their meaning only in relationship to other things,” says O’Sickey, still passionate about what he sees as a fundamental principle of his art—and of all good art. You can’t decide the meaning of something before you have seen it in its context. “You have to act on what’s there. Each choice you make, each brush stroke, each new color you put on the canvas must be a response”—to what’s there, and to how it has changed things.
Even areas of unpainted canvas become participating shapes or active presences (“I reject the whole concept of ‘negative’ space”) the moment that space is modified or divided by a new line into juxtaposed shapes. “You can’t choose your color palette in advance because you don't know what’s
going to give you the contrasts necessary to hold it all together;
sometimes you have to make a completely different choice from what’s out there, for the unity of the whole.”
Settling in Cleveland Heights in
1947 with his new bride, the painter and soft-sculpture artist Algesa
D’Agostino, who would be his inseparable companion and soul-mate for
the next 60 years, O’Sickey supported himself as a commercial art
director and design consultant. In 1956 he joined the faculty of
Western Reserve University’s School of Architecture, and he and Algesa
formed a design partnership with architect Robert A. Little and his wife Anne, an interior designer. O’Sickey later believed it was
a painting he did of the front lawn of their house on Edgehill Road
that set his career on a new path.
The home in rural Twin Lakes, near
Kent, Ohio, to which he and Algesa moved in 1968, an idyllic retreat
festooned with flowers and a walled garden, was to provide an endless
source of inspiration. O’Sickey’s paintings, drawings and watercolors
have been seen in more than 80 group- and some 54 one-man shows. Three
of those solo exhibitions took place at New York’s
Kennedy Galleries of American Art, where his work was regularly hung
alongside that of Walt Kuhn, Will Barnett and Georgia O’Keefe. A
lengthy profile of O’Sickey that appeared in the January 1987 Golden Anniversary issue of American Artist revealed him to be an unusually articulate painter (“One should never rule out how much depends on kinesthetic action,” O’Sickey told Will Kirby about the inherent limitations of Photo-Realism and photography. “Rhythm and form are translated to the canvas not by the eye alone, but by the whole body of the artist.”).
In 2007, the Cleveland Artists Foundation mounted a seven-decade retrospective of his work titled Menageries and Other Worlds,
curated by William Busta and Richard Sarian, that fairly throbbed with
O’Sickey’s delicious sense of color. In 2009, inspired by a novel about
childhood by W. H. Hudson published in 1918, the year O’Sickey
was born, the 91-year-old artist designed, and underwrote with a
generous grant, a project for the interested students of six high
schools in Portage County. It used sketchbooks as a way of learning “to see” better, meaning to see the relationships between things. (See excerpt.)
The following year the Butler
Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, presented a joint
exhibition of work by Joe and Algesa O’Sickey that had been planned before her death four years earlier. “Algesa and I are having an exhibition in July,” he proudly told friends. The Butler show was, like all of his art,
about how the meaning of everything is found in relationship.
Joseph O’Sickey’s work is in many
private, public and corporate collections including the Cleveland,
Canton and Columbus museums of art, the Westmoreland Museum of American
Art, Butler Institute of American Art, and the collections of Bristol
Myers, IBM, Hahn, Loeser + Parks, PepsiCo and General Electric.
Keeping a Diary of Your Perceptual Life
Seeing better, or seeing well,
consists of spontaneously seeing relations between things. This can be
achieved by practice. The practice consists of spontaneously drawing
what is around you, what you alone see. It has to be personal and
direct—nothing between you and what you see—no cameras, no computers,
no funny lenses, no other images.
The drawing, itself, will be evidence of your progress in seeing. Seeing and drawing relationships can be simply understood:
1. Relative position of things.
2. Relative size of things.
3. Difference in the shape of things.
4. Relative brightness of things.
5. Relations of rhythms, patterns, textures, etc.
Techniques of drawing are of little
importance when acting spontaneously on what is perceived as a
relationship. The practice at sketching and drawing perceived
relationships will prepare you better for studies in science, including
the social sciences; certainly in all the arts; an important
understanding in questions of values, priorities, meanings, certitudes,
truths, what we study in schools, and experience and believe as we live
Your sketchbook can be the start of
a diary of your perceptual life which I hope will be one of growth,
happiness, and fulfillment.
—The Joseph and Algesa O’Sickey Sketchbook Perception Development Program (2009)
All photos courtesy of the artist and the Cleveland Artists Foundation.