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At 93, Joseph O’Sickey ’40 paints what he sees at least three days a week with dramatic results. But he treasures the experience of making paintings even more than the satisfaction of seeing the finished work.
To illustrate the point, he likes to share one of his favorite anecdotes. He and his beloved wife, the late artist Algesa (D’Agostino) O’Sickey, were walking down the steps of the Grand Palais in Paris after viewing what they regarded as a breathtaking Matisse retrospective. O’Sickey noticed his wife had tears running down her face.
“I said ‘What’s the matter, Darling? Did you get something in your eye?’ and she said ‘Yes, Matisse.’ And then she explained that she was thinking about how fortunate Matisse was to have had the experience of doing all those beautiful paintings. I said ‘That’s what I love about you, Baby, you know what really counts.’ It’s the experience of doing it; that’s what I value and it’s nothing else.”
O’Sickey has been enjoying the experience of making art for nearly 90 years.
He sometimes saturates the canvas with rich, non-primary colors of interesting contrasts, as in his painted responses to the garden he overlooks from his studio outside Kent, Ohio; he sometimes makes minimal black marks on paper come to life, as in a recent painting of blue jays, who seem to be raising a ruckus in that same garden. Whatever the subject or style, he works on a piece until he feels it is unified.
O’Sickey began sketching the chickens in his grandmother’s Cleveland backyard as a child of four. His parents encouraged his creativity by purchasing paper for him and, at Christmas, various how-to books for artists. He took Saturday art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and CIA (then the Cleveland School of Art.) As a high school student, he took art classes taught by Paul Travis ’17 at the former John Huntington Polytechnic Institute. Art teachers Harold Hunsicker and Paul Scherer provided further encouragement at East Technical High School, insisting that O’Sickey apply to the Cleveland School of Art and even buying mat board for the paintings in his portfolio on their meager, Depression-era wages. (What they would not do was winnow down the 200 plus watercolors he had painted any further than the 25 they had decided were his best, even though the college admissions office only asked to see 10.)
O’Sickey entered the Cleveland School of Art in 1936 with the benefit of a full Ranney Scholarship. He became immersed in a culture of great artists and designers and recalls painting along the train tracks in Little Italy with classmate Marco DeMarco ’40, who he had met at Huntington along with Hughie Lee-Smith ’38. He remembers a freshman design class taught by the renowned enamelist Kenneth Bates, sculpture with Walter Sinz and painting classes with Carl Gaertner ’23, Frank Wilcox ’10, and Henry Keller (class of 1892.) Goldsmith and designer John Paul Miller ’40 and the late designer/metalsmith Melvin Rose ’40 were both classmates in the Industrial Design program taught by Viktor Schreckengost ’29, and both became lifelong friends of O’Sickey.
After graduation, O’Sickey made a living and a life from art. Even as an Army soldier in World War II, he drew with whatever materials he could get his hands on. He still has some 600 of the 750 drawings he made in North Africa and India.After the war, his creative career included 18 years in graphic design; freelance illustrating for advertising firms and department stores; humorous cartoons, some of which appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and Fortune; and teaching art at Ohio State University, the Akron Museum of Art, the former Western Reserve University, and, for 25 years, at Kent State University.
“I have a background in teaching because I wanted to be serious about my work and clear about the best way to help students,” O’Sickey said. “My point of view about doing the graphic design was, ‘What can I get out of it besides money?’ It isn’t worth doing if I can’t learn something and practice my art. I made a decision that I would unify the work, no matter how slight it was. The objective of art is to unify the experience.”
During all those years of teaching and creating applied art, O’Sickey was painting whenever he could. During the 1960s and 1970s, he had six solo shows at Jacques Seligmann Galleries in New York City and his work was in the Kennedy Galleries in New York for more than 20 years. He kept up a steady pace of group and solo shows with works regularly acquired for corporate, museum and private collections.
His wife, Algesa, was constantly creating too, whether directing an art gallery, running an interior design consultancy, drawing, painting, or creating her distinctive fabric sculptures. “We wanted our life in the arts but we wanted it on different terms than most people wanted. I wanted a more vivid and aware life and I wanted that to come from my art.”
O’Sickey continued to paint in a representational style even as Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism flourished in the art world. “I saw them all and I was bored with them. They were imitating each other and abstraction had to look a certain way; so abstraction became academic very fast. I have too much ego to want to be like everyone else,” he said with a chuckle.
Sharon Dean, former director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation, called O’Sickey a romantic. “Beneath the vibrant colors, strong brush strokes, and attention to object relationships, a passion for creating artwork can be seen in each of his pieces,” she wrote in the catalog that accompanied a retrospective of his work that the foundation mounted in 2007.
When O’Sickey is not painting in his studio, working with curators to inventory his collection of work, or preparing for his upcoming solo show at the Canton Museum of Art, his attention goes to the artists of tomorrow. He has established and funded The Joseph and Algesa O’Sickey Sketchbook Perception Development Program to encourage Portage County high school students to practice spontaneous sketching from observation. He is a passionate advocate of the sketchbook as a tool for developing the critical skills of observation and perception and helping students to “see the relationships among things while discovering the graphic expression of the experience.”
In an open letter to Portage County students, O’Sickey wrote, “Seeing better, or seeing well, consists of spontaneously seeing relations between things. This can be done by practice. The practice consists of spontaneously drawing what is around you, what you alone see.” And the practice continues for O’Sickey.
A solo exhibition of Joseph O’Sickey’s work, In Living Color, will be on view at the Canton museum of art from may 11–June 29, 2013.
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