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Joseph A. Whalen, Lockport artist and teacher

Dec. 24, 1927 - Dec. 17, 2015

Joseph A. Whalen, a prolific painter and art teacher whose popular work made him into local institution in his hometown of Lockport, died Thursday in Niagara Hospice House after a long illness. He was 87.

Mr. Whalen discovered an aptitude for drawing during a long childhood sickness, he said in an October interview with The Buffalo News, making abstract drawings in pencil of “whatever was in my head.” He went on to study art at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Albright Art School and SUNY Buffalo State, gaining an appreciation for the relative ease and versatility of watercolors, which would become his preferred medium, as well a knack for teaching.

Mr. Whalen taught art to public school students throughout Niagara County, including Lockport Schools, and at Niagara County Community College, from 1954 to 1983, gaining a reputation as a committed instructor whose influence on his students extended far beyond technical instruction.

“As much as he is known for his art, Joe is also highly regarded for his humor, storytelling and knowledge of local families and history,” a program accompanying Whalen’s recent retrospective exhibition in the Market Street Art Center reads. “As a teacher, the number one lesson that Joe has attempted to pass along to his students is the importance of being a good citizen. In that regard, Joe leads by example.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Whalen drew inspiration for his graphite sketches and watercolors from Lockport’s dive bars and dark alleys, populating his compositions with rough-looking characters who seemed to be trapped in a distant, Dickensian era. He was also inspired by the rural vistas of Niagara County, creating many light-drenched landscapes and scenes of rural roads, dilapidated barns and rusted bridges.

In addition to teaching, Mr. Whalen also worked as a medical illustrator for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a technical illustrator at Cornell Lab and as a freelance commercial illustrator for clients including Harrison Radiator and General Motors. He also produced freelance illustrations for local community theater playbills, anti-smoking campaigns and community events.

A wide selection of Mr. Whalen’s work from across his nearly eight-decade career was recently displayed in “Whalen: A Legacy” in Lockport’s Market Street Art Center, where a wall was plastered with admiring notes from former students and fans. The opening was attended by hundreds of people, many of whom assembled outside to welcome Mr. Whalen before packing into the small gallery space.

“People were outside clapping,” Mr. Whalen’s wife, Kay, said. “A friend of ours said it sounded like the pope had arrived.”

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Kathleen Connors Whalen; four daughters, Martha LaPoint, Kathleen Granchelli, Mary Glenn and Jennifer Govenettio; three sons, John, Joseph and Steve; a sister, Mary Kay Curtin; 23 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday in St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, 168 Chestnut St., Lockport.

– Colin Dabkowski