Up Close with Joseph

Working in an old garage-turned-studio, using discarded junk found by dumpster diving, and driven to create new work whether or not anyone is buying, scruffy-yet-savvy Joseph Close personifies the downtown bohemian artist.

Working in an old garage-turned-studio, using discarded junk found by dumpster diving, and driven to create new work whether or not anyone is buying, scruffy-yet-savvy Joseph Close personifies the downtown bohemian artist.

In his case, downtown is Canton, where he is one of the major players in a loosely knit group of scrappy, industrious types who have fashioned an art scene from the underground up. It’s not as romantic as it might sound.

“There is some merit to struggling, but I would like it to end relatively soon,” Close confesses, taking a break from preparing for his big summer show at Anderson Creative Studio, on view through Aug. 7. He and his art-underground compadres in Canton and Massillon “are getting through this recession together. The future is pretty bright if we can hang on. I don’t know one artist who has thrown in the towel.”

Lined up in a large semicircle are pieces from the exhibition in various states of completion. With the muted color palette in his skillfully rendered oil paintings and the found objects that give them texture — organ keys, chair legs — his artworks don’t look new so much as unearthed. Or unearthly.

“I seem to be floating in this zone of impermanence,” he remarks. “If something stays around too long, it’s ready for a makeover.”

Impatiently, he recently altered his painting of a mother and child, replacing the baby’s head with that of Snowflake the albino gorilla. Snowflake is one of Close’s three muses, along with Punchinello and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The unlikely trio reappear as characters in his work and are the focus of his ambitious, environmental exhibition titled “Prologue: Origins of a Tale.” The work can be viewed at www.andersoncreativestudio.com.

“I’m delving into why these characters have stuck with me,” Close says. “They’re all protagonists in the story. They are all heroes to me, and they represent different parts of my personality.”

The artist attempts to explain: “Snowflake is caged in a zoo, which I equate as a prison, and he makes art from what is around him, which is what I do. Punchinello is a circus figure, a lovable scoundrel with a mask on.

“Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was totally brilliant, a sculptor and a patron of the arts who founded the Whitney Museum. She was from the richest family in America but she was attracted to the bohemian lifestyle. She feltit was her duty to support living artists. She definitely had style.”

There is a mythology running through Close’s work that is clear to him. For casual viewers, the story lines are ambiguous, his paintings like random scenes from a complex film. Masked storm troopers, a prizefighter, Third World children and jazz musicians co-mingle in his worldview.

“I’ve been collecting all this stuff for years and years,” he says. “It’s all together in my mind.”

In addition to Close’s talents as an oil painter, he is a welder and a glass blower, the latter a skill acquired while apprenticing at Ken Carter’s KC Glass Studio when he first moved to Canton in 2001. A Columbus native, he recalls drawing with his father as a boy. He enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh as an industrial-design major, but shifted gears after a friend suggested he try oil painting. Eventually, his hobby became a full-time pursuit.

The most prominent evidence of Close’s talent is his visually exciting, epic and somewhat hidden mural on Court Avenue NW between Second and Third streets in downtown Canton. Titled “Gaia’s Hope,” it has six panels, and measures 90 feet wide by 8 feet tall.

“As for arriving on the scene, so to speak, that was it,” he says of the mural, installed in 2006. “People still come up to me and say, ‘That is yours?’ I guess it’s still relevant if people are still discovering it.”

Another public artwork downtown is a sculpture on the campus of Timken High School, just off McKinley Avenue NW, that he created with Timken art students whom he taught to weld.

He has done art projects with students at the Canton Montessori School and conducted workshops at the Massillon Museum.

In addition to his July solo exhibition at Anderson Creative, Close has exhibited often at the downtown galleries 2nd April, Acme Artist and Bliss Studio, and was a featured artist in “Stark Naked Salon” at the Massillon Museum and “Something From Nothing” at the Canton Museum of Art. An exhibit of work by Close, along with another Canton artist, Tiffany Marsh, will open Aug. 7 at the We Gallery in downtown Akron.

Beyond the gallery and museum shows, there is something deeply appealing to Close about artists’ staging events in vacant city buildings and creating graffiti-like murals on downtown walls.

“There’s a guerilla aspect to what’s happening here in Canton and with the artists in Massillon,” he says. “When the economy tanked, it forced people to be more creative, to hustle with less. Some people have really shown their mettle.”