Cliff Joseph, Chicago artist, art therapist who corresponded with MLK, dead at 98
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote to him: ‘I have always felt, since I first saw it, your art expressed the meaning and sacrifice of our struggle.’
Cliff Joseph already was an artist in 1963, but his work was transformed that year when he participated in the March on Washington and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I was so moved . . . I decided I would get out of commercial art,” the Chicago artist told an interviewer. “If I hadn’t had the inspiration that I got through the civil rights movement, I might have remained there, but this really awakened me.”
“His work became more topical,” his wife Ann said. “Throughout the years, he was inspired by Dr. King.”
Mr. Joseph, whose art highlighted Black pride and offered searing social commentary, died last month in Chicago at 98. His wife said he had had a series of strokes.
An anti-Vietnam War work Mr. Joseph called “My Country Right or Wrong” features figures standing on skulls while wearing American flags as blindfolds.
In a haunting piece Mr. Joseph titled “Southern Comfort,” the heads of white-robed Ku Klux Klan figures make up the white stars on a Confederate flag superimposed over a lynching victim.
“Blackboard” depicts a Black teacher and student in front of a chalkboard with ABCs that begin by spelling the words “Ashanti,” “Black Power” and “Community Control.”
After four Black girls were killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, Mr. Joseph depicted a Christmas creche made from the debris. At its center, four children stand around the manger of baby Jesus.
He turned the lithograph into cards he sent to King, suggesting they be used for fundraising, said art dealer Thom Pegg, author of a catalogue on Mr. Joseph’s work. King wrote to thank the artist, saying, “I have always felt, since I first saw it, your art expressed the meaning and sacrifice of our struggle.”
In 1990, his wife said, Mr. Joseph presented a painting of Nelson Mandela when the towering figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement visited New York City.
His art is “extremely moving; very poignant,” said Lynne Schillaci, a gallery director at Aaron Galleries in Glenview, which sells his works.
“His art was not shying away from the pain and the oppression that Black and Brown people experience every day,” said his friend Olga Bautista.
Mr. Joseph, who was raised in Harlem, was also a founding member of a New York artists group that lobbied for Black representation at galleries and museums. And the American Art Therapy Association said Mr. Joseph was the group’s first Black member.
He was born Clifford Ricardo Joseph in Panama, the son of Leontine and Samuel Joseph, a worker on the Panama Canal, Ann Joseph said. His parents settled in New York City when he was a baby.
During World War II, Mr. Joseph served in Europe, where he met boxer Joe Louis, then an Army goodwill ambassador, according to his wife.
He had a memorable encounter guarding German POWs, said Pegg, the owner of Tyler Fine Art in St. Louis and Black Art Auction in Indianapolis, which also represent his work.
“One day a prisoner asked me for an orange because he was very hungry. I obliged the man and he was so grateful he gave me his Leica camera,” Mr. Joseph is quoted as saying in Pegg’s catalogue. He said the experience taught him “the people we were trying to defeat were human beings just like us.”
He studied at Pratt Institute and created Afrocentric greeting cards that were to be marketed in Woolworth’s in Harlem but flopped, according to his wife.
Mr. Joseph helped found the Black Emergency Cultural Experience, an artists group that demonstrated in 1969 against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem on my Mind” exhibition and another show at the Whitney Museum, saying the museums were ignoring Black art and expertise.
He taught art therapy at Pratt and co-wrote “Murals of the Mind” about his work with hospital psychiatric patients.
“His art was activist work. His therapy was activist work,” said Barbara Fish, former president of the Illinois Art Therapy Association.“He helped people understand how their socioeconomic stresses in their lives impacted their mental health.”
After the 1971 Attica Correctional Facility uprising in New York State, he worked to help create an art therapy program for prisoners, Fish said.
In 2001, the Josephs moved to Chicago’s East Side neighborhood, where Mr. Joseph worked for environmental justice, campaigning against the storage of pollutants including petcoke, a byproduct of the oil industry, Bautista said.
Mr. Joseph is also survived by his daughter Leonette and son Clifford Jr. from a prior marriage, brother Ronald and three grandchildren.
“Cliff was fearless and determined,” Pegg said. “He never accepted concession and worked tirelessly for racial equality and human dignity.”
Contributing: Brett Chase