Review: Joseph O’Sickey at Canton Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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He’s better known outside Ohio than in his home state.

He has had longstanding friendships with world-renowned artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Will Barnett.

Such top-drawer New York art emporiums as Jacques Seligmann and Kennedy Galleries have exhibited his work.

Now, this world-renowned (except here) artist is finally getting his due in Ohio.

Through July 21, the Canton Museum of Art is exhibiting Joseph O’Sickey: Unifying Art, Life and Love. Curated by Christine Fowler Shearer, the museum’s chief fundraiser and former director of the Massillon Museum of Art, the exhibit — billed as a major retrospective of O’Sickey’s work — features seven decades’ worth of paintings and drawings, nearly 160 works on canvas or paper.

But the accolades don’t stop there.

Now 94, O’Sickey is this year’s recipient, along with Bluffton ceramic artist Jack Earl, of the Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts in the individual artist category. On May 15, Gov. John Kasich will present him with the award at a luncheon in Columbus.

O’Sickey is a retired professor and graphic designer who has taught at Ohio State University, the former Western Reserve University and Kent State University.

His works can be found in public and private collections around the world. Those in this exhibit have been borrowed from the artist’s private stash and local collectors. Two of them belong to the Canton Museum of Art.

An ardent advocate of sketching and drawing from real life, he has always stressed the importance of drawing as a way of seeing, not only as an artist, but as a fully engaged individual.

“The practice of sketching and drawing perceived relationships will prepare you better for studies in science, including the social sciences — certainly in all the arts,” he said. “It will provide an important understanding in questions of values, priorities, meanings, certitudes, truths, what we study in schools and experience and believe as we live.”

The exhibit itself is a stunner, with beautifully drawn and masterfully painted works large, larger and largest by the artist, as well as captivating and delicate small studies in both ink and watercolor.

He has declared his love of the Post-Impressionists and the modernists, and has insisted that he mastered them, then moved on to develop his own unique style.

But as one progresses through the show looking closely at every work, it comes to mind that he may have mastered them, but they mastered him in turn.

Here and there are clear influences from Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh. The most outstanding and recognizable styles in the canon of Modernism and Post-Impressionism have managed to find repeated expression in his work.

He was inclined in that direction from the get-go. If we watch the widely promoted hourlong documentary Joseph O’Sickey: The Art of Life, produced by Western Reserve PBS, we are given glimpses of drawings he did as a boy and can see the fluidity of his line, the absolute ease with which he put pen or brush to paper, and the relationship of his work to what his young eyes were already perceiving in the area’s important collections, such as those at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Born in Detroit in 1918, O’Sickey’s family moved to Cleveland when he was 4 months old and settled in the Polish neighborhood of St. Stanislaus Parish. He attended East Tech High School and Saturday morning classes at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). He also took advantage of free evening classes at the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Institute.

He continued his studies at the Cleveland School of Art after high school until he was drafted by the Army in 1941. Works from his tours in India, Africa and Burma can be seen in this show, and we notice that while technically proficient, they lack a unifying style and dynamic, and the energy that high design and simplified, but more sophisticated composition would later bring to his canvases.

Then in 1946 comes the moment that this exhibit is built around: his first meeting with his future wife and lifelong love, Algesa D’Agostino, at the 1030 Gallery in Cleveland. A stunningly beautiful woman with movie-star qualities, Algesa became a frequent subject of his paintings.

Images of Algesa are not as obsessively painted, however, as those of his own backyard. O’Sickey’s landscapes of his home garden are legendary and widely sought after. As one observer commented, “the yard isn’t that big, but he always manages to get new vantages in them.”

O’Sickey taught at Ohio State for a year, beginning in 1947. While there, he became deeply influenced by Hoyt Sherman and began a lifelong friendship with fellow faculty member Lichtenstein.

He was asked to stay on there, but he had to get back to Cleveland and Algesa. From the late 1940s into the early 1960s, he worked at a variety of jobs, eventually becoming assistant professor of art at Kent State University, where he taught until 1989.

He continues to introduce children to the importance of sketching and the arts through his sponsorship of a sketchbook program with Portage City Schools.

From the time he began teaching at Kent State, his work began to grow in fame. He won numerous awards in painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show and has had more than 50 one-person shows throughout his professional life.

His works can be found in public and private collections including the Butler Institute of American Art, Bristol Myers, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland Public Library, the Cleveland Museum of Art, IBM, National City Bank, the Pepsi-Cola Collection, and, of course, the Canton Museum of Art.

A major component of the exhibit is the education outreach “Sketching Program” being offered to fourth- and fifth-graders in Stark County. Initially piloted in March in the Canton school district’s fourth-grade classrooms, artists from the museum visited classes to prepare students for their upcoming tour of the exhibit.

Artists provided information on O’Sickey and his artistic philosophies, including his practice of filling sketchbooks throughout his career and his lifelong interest in drawing from observation. As with his Portage County program, O’Sickey himself provided sketchbooks for all of the participating students.

Since the start of the program, the museum has been able to bring art instruction and education to nearly 700 students in 30 different classrooms.

Those interested in learning details of the visiting artists program or scheduling a tour of the exhibit should contact Erica Emerson at 330-453-7666.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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