by Len Lear
When you look at Joe Gibson’s paintings, you can’t help but think that they belong in galleries, even museums, wherever people love fine art. And they have been — at Gallery 51, The Artist House Gallery and Woodmere Art Museum, among others. His paintings have been purchased by art lovers in the U.S. as well as in the former Yugoslavia, Israel, England, Italy and Germany. His works have appeared on the covers of magazines.
In spite of all that, Gibson, 61, who has lived almost all of his life in Mt. Airy and Germantown and has taught at Allens Lane Art Center and for the city’s Mural Arts Program and was a freelance illustrator for the Free Library of Philadelphia, Franklin Institute, Scholastic magazine, Jack & Jill magazine and children’s books, among others, now finds himself inexplicably homeless.
“It costs money to promote my art, and I do not have it anymore,” said Gibson, who was living with a relative in Mt. Airy for a while but insists he has been homeless for five months because his money just ran out. “I go to the Chestnut Hill Library and do drawing. I carry my easel on my backpack, and nobody bothers me. But it is very depressing.”
This is not the first time fate has seemed to have it in for Gibson. “In 1995 I got a studio at 54th and Cobbs Creek. In 1997 it burned down. My bed was on fire. I was at the U of P Hospital for six weeks with third-degree burns. I lost everything — years worth of paintings and drawings.”
Gibson’s journey as an artist began when he was just a child on Boyer Street going to Pastorius Elementary School and then Wagner Jr. High. “I knew I was an artist from the beginning. I have vivid memories of drawing horses running across the walls of my parents’ house and crayon helicopters flying over the stampede. I drew cars, trucks, people and parades, balloons, dragons and castles. I drew pictures on every surface I could. I drew pictures on doors, in books and magazines. I could not stop.
“Fortunately for me I didn’t have to. Instead of punishment, my father, Charles Gibson, a photographer by profession, recognized my creative urge. He simply redirected my budding passion and supplied me with paper, pencils, crayons, pastels and watercolors. When I started kindergarten at Pastorius, my teachers called me the ‘class artist.’ At home I spent many hours drawing pictures sitting in front of the television. I taught myself to draw by illustrating the cartoons, movies and TV shows I watched every day.”
After school, Gibson literally sold his drawings door to door on his way home. The people answering their doors would flip through drawings of Bible stories, winged horses, matadors battling menacing bulls and mythical gods flying across the sky in chariots. “No one ever said no to the pictures that I offered for just one dollar each, and they had smiles on their faces. Since I was paid one dollar for each drawing, I was a working artist!”
Soon, Joseph was illustrating posters welcoming visitors to his school. His father was so proud that he held on to his drawings for years. Because of his gift, Gibson’s father enrolled him into the Student Art League offered through his school. His work was entered into a citywide exhibition, where he won first prize. In high school teachers bid higher and higher prices for the paintings and drawings he produced at home.
Gibson’s father, who was white, had a new car every other year and a beautiful house on Boyer Street. “We were the first blacks in the neighborhood, but the other kids on the street did not treat me any differently. Then the neighborhood changed, became mostly black. Then everything changed. Some kids threatened my sister, broke our windows, killed out pets. They made fun of my father for being an amputee.
“Some kids at Wagner threatened to beat me up until one guy stopped them. ‘He’s an artist,’ he told them. I was 11. That saved me. We had been on Boyer Street for 10 years, but my dad said, ‘We have to go,’ so we moved to East Oak Lane. There, white kids started fires in our backyard, so as a (bi-racial) family, we had gotten it from both blacks and whites.”
Joseph attended Dobbins High School and then Olney and was designing and illustrating advertisements and posters for businesses like pizza shops in his neighborhood. At age 19 he was working in the art department of an advertising agency, learning catalog design, magazine design and editorial illustration. He often worked all night to complete work for morning presentations. Soon he was designing logos, annual reports, magazine covers and brochures and illustrating storyboards for television commercials.
Gibson eventually began taking evening classes in drawing and painting at The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) and in 1984 started full-time classes at Hussian School of Art, now Hussian College, majoring in fine art and illustration, even though he also worked three jobs while going to school. After four years, he graduated with honors and received four awards for excellence in academic achievement in drawing, painting and media techniques.
Since 1988, Gibson has worked all freelance except for jobs at Ingall’s Art Supply in Germantown part-time and Pearl Art Supply on South Street. When he taught inner-city children for the Mural Arts Program, some had serious art talent. “Out of 25 or 30, I might find eight who had some talent,” he recalled. “I’d encourage them and praise them. And they wound up working on murals. I told them the world was for them, too. I took a bunch of them, 8 to 12 years old, to the Hard Rock Cafe. When they saw all the white people, one said, ‘Are we allowed to be here, too?’ Ordering food that was made to order blew their mind…
“We (artists) are portraying the human condition. For example, five years ago I was painting the bridge at Valley Green Inn while a wedding was going on. A man who saw me painting said, ‘Would you be willing to sell that beautiful painting to me?’ I looked up. It was the groom. He said, ‘Valley Green Inn has been a big part of our relationship,’ so of course, I did sell him the painting, and he was thrilled!”
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