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Joe Orffeo and Tony Bannon in the studio, 2009 photo by Brendan Bannon

Joe Orffeo and Tony Bannon in the studio, 2009 photo by Brendan Bannon

Tony Bannon remembers his friend Joe Orffeo

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Memorial Celebration for Joe will be held at the Colden Fire Hall, 8448 Gutekunst, Colden, NY from 1-5 pm on Saturday, April 27.


Joe Orffeo was the real thing.

He died Wednesday afternoon. He was 87 years old, and he was an artist. Important also was his life as a husband, a father, and a veteran. Art was the river that ran through, like the brook in his back yard in Colden. He made art because he breathed, and he made it right up to the last minute. Joe drew as a kid, and he drew during his service to the United States in the South Pacific. There, he was in charge of a landing craft, which he navigated during the combat landings in the Philippines. He was honored for this service.

Scott Propeack and I visited with him a few days ago. Joe had just finished creating the most luminous watercolors which envision what is out there, someplace beyond. Scott is the associate director here at the Center. He is in charge of exhibitions and collections. Scott and I were struck by the prophesy of those images. We will find a place real soon to share some of the new pictures Joe presented to the Center.

As I was saying, Joe Orffeo is the real deal. He saw terrible things during World War II, but he didn’t speak about it much. He felt the despair of our time: the ceaseless killings, the scars we leave on the planet, the pain, the dark monsters. Their presence expressed a recurrent idea in his art. He called these pictures The Image of Man, dark phantoms which over time he surrounded in vivid color, as if to tame them. They are the icons, whether fearful or domesticated, that show up as paintings or sculptures sometimes, risky watercolors, more often.

His watercolors were made upon wet paper, where pigments flow and require mastery. These are chancy operations, like free-form jazz, and Joe played the paper very well. Many of his songs were joyful; that is one of the fine things about him. He made great sweeps of ebullient color, sunrise moments, abstract glory. He made these things, in joy and in despair, and he played them back and forth, like a call and response, because that is what he needed to do, and he did it most every day. For a long time, he rolled up the canvases and stuffed them under the bed or back in the closet, and had towers of boxes that held drawings, and then his wife Linda built a studio for him that opened upon the good light where he lived out in the country.

Joe would call and announce himself as “the guy with paint on his hands,” and report that “the birds are singing, and the fish are swimming and the flowers blooming,” and maybe he would say that he had just made sauce and invite friends out for an art talk and pasta. His and Linda’s place was a salon of sorts, where young artists gathered, like my son Brendan, and civic leaders gathered, like Lou Ciminelli, who admired his work and his pasta sauce, and Grace Meibohm, his gallerist and support, and educators like Steve Csati and Paul Weiland, and, of course, the artists of his own era, like David Pratt, who lived nearby.

Joe loved community. It likely began in the halcyon days of the Art Institute of Buffalo, where men and women talked all night and learned bold lessons and partied hard. They loved each other through the years: Walter Prochownik, Bob Blair, David Pratt, Jean Henrich, Don Burns, Jeanette Blair and Bill West, who keep the flame alive. Charles Burchfield, Edwin Dickinson, Earl Stroh, Bill Rowe, Isaac Sawyer were among the faculty. David Pratt ended as its director.

Joe had a knockout solo show there in 1951. After that he had a lot of juried or group shows around the northeast, midwest, and Western New York. He was a member of the Buffalo Society of Artists, where he won a few awards, but it was his friends who talked him into doing these shows and often carried the pictures in for him. Although he taught from time to time (at CEPA Gallery and in the Hamburg Central School District), he was a barber. A famous one. No one quite like him.

Joe maintained a one room little red shop in Patchin that became a gathering spot for, truly, the young and old, the rich and poor. Joe made it that way, on purpose. He loved community. Old men came to pass the time, and young men had the school bus drop them off at the shop after school. Joe set up a chess board, and ran a good sound system that played a range from Count Basie to Composer Beethoven. And there was fabulous conversation, and there was Joe. That was a long time ago, in the 1960s and into the 1970s. I was one of his regulars – when I had some hair. And I wrote about him for the Buffalo News. Joe painted all over the walls and out onto Route 219 late at night. Kids put poems onto the mirrors, and a few older men did too. Joe made poems also. Here is one:

A soft wind
Caresses the apple
And forgets to

When I became director of what then was the Burchfield Art Center, I wanted to signal an eagerness to present under-exposed artists. Joe hadn’t had a solo show since 1951, and it was already 1986, and he had acres of work. We selected a show, and he insisted to bring it in himself – on a day when the Center was closed, he specified. He brought the work in on a Monday, and when he arrived he was livid. I had never seen him angry. But he was then:

“You told me there would be no one here,” he shouted.

“Well,” I responded, “these are kids from school. They won’t be in the way.”

Yes,” he countered, “but they will see my work!”

Joe was terminally shy about showing the work. And in fact, his wife Linda, in her wisdom, created a colorful white suit, which she painted in many hues, so that Joe could become a different person and endure the opening reception.

What followed were a number of fine exhibitions – at Big Orbit, at Meibohm Fine Arts, on the cover of Spree magazine. Joe had gotten over it. And a good thing it was. His gift through these years has been significant to our community.

For there was that extraordinary balance of his life: forthright and face to face with the darkness—and open to the glories. He had that gift to unlock the darkness and reveal an embracing joy. You knew he had seen the troubles, but you appreciated how well he understood the necessity for joy. Even in the face of a contrary evidence.

Joe Orffeo was the real thing.


A Memorial Celebration for Joe will be held at the Colden Fire Hall, 8448 Gutekunst, Colden, NY from 1-5 pm on Saturday, April 27.