Joseph B. O’Sickey, Painter


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. OSickey 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 Yorks 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.

OSickey 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 Dealers Helen Borsick, was that he accomplished this sweep in a variety of painterly styles, even using that most hackneyed of subjects, flowers. The subject doesnt 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.”

O’Sickey 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 subject.”

Born 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, OSickey had instinctively rebelled against the academic tradition of teaching art students to draw the figure (and other objects) in isolation from the background.

Things have their meaning only in relationship to other things, says OSickey, still passionate about what he sees as a fundamental principle of his art—and of all good art. You cant decide the meaning of something before you have seen it in its context. You have to act on whats there. Each choice you make, each brush stroke, each new color you put on the canvas must be a response—to whats 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 cant choose your color palette in advance because you don't know whats going to give you the contrasts necessary to hold it all together; sometimes you have to make a completely different choice from whats 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 OKeefe. A lengthy profile of OSickey 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, OSickey 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.

Dennis Dooley

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 our lives.

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.


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