LOCKPORT – Art is not always about sunsets and flowers.
Just ask Lockport artist Joseph Whalen, who often uses raw and realistic art as a vehicle to spread social messages.
It’s not a surprise that his latest work, a message aimed at stopping domestic violence, has gotten so much attention.
In the graffiti-style piece, the words “STOP IT” scream out from the page, surrounded by angry black and purple shadows.
The work was done for the YWCA of Niagara, which plans to create a campaign to stop domestic violence centered around the artwork.
“I don’t know if it’s going to prevent any (domestic violence), but if it brings it to someone’s attention ... we are all given levels of intellect and maybe some of this will get through to people who think they have a right to physically abuse people to satisfy their own egos or frustrations or problems. Those are all just excuses. How many women have to die because no one pays attention to domestic violence?” Whalen said.
The poster will be distributed to hospitals, colleges, schools, businesses and any other locations that are interested and there will also be two billboards, said Mary Brennan-Taylor, vice president of programs for the YWCA of Niagara.
She encouraged church groups, fire halls and others that would like to display the poster on a bulletin board to contact her at the YWCA of Niagara at 433-6714, Ext. 15.
“Joe designed this (in October) during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but I believe every month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is relevant every month of the year,” Brennan-Taylor said. “I was overwhelmed that someone like (Whalen), one of Western New York’s premier artists, would take the time to design an especially poignant poster for us.”
She said he not only designed it, but also will donate $5 from the purchase of every one of his 2015 calendars sold this year, toward the YWCA’s program.
“That’s remarkably generous,” Brennan-Taylor said. “And also that a man – a well-respected man – is standing up and saying, ‘Enough. This has to stop.’ There’s so many ways that quietly, behind the scenes, he has helped us.
She added, “This is just one more way he has given to us, while he is in a battle of his life right now. He is just one of Western New York’s greatest treasures. We need a few more Joe Whalens in the world.”
Whalen, 86, who is also a retired Lockport art teacher, spoke to The Buffalo News from his home as he battles throat cancer. He faced debilitating illness as a child as well as pain as a parent, losing his daughter, Sheila Whalen, who was killed in Colorado in 1981 at the hands of a serial killer.
He and his wife, Kay, have seven remaining children, 26 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Q: What makes a great piece of art for you?
A: It could be the subject matter. It could be the social effect, which is what I like to see in paintings, that it has an effect socially.
Q: Like the poster you just created for the YWCA. Is this the first time you have done something like this?
A: Yes, but when I worked at Roswell Park in the medical illustration department, I did all the anti-smoking propaganda, the posters in particular. This was in the summer while I was teaching. It’s always a challenge to do a poster with an important message. It took me a long while before I gave up smoking, but it finally got through to me. I smoked until I was 40.
Q: Tell me about your artwork for the YWCA campaign against domestic violence.
A: I did it as a sketch. I didn’t want it to be pretty, because there’s nothing pretty about domestic violence. It has ragged edges, no question about it. It’s sketchy, but so is domestic violence. It has a hard edge. (The black) indicates that it is all around us.
Q: Have you ever been touched by domestic violence?
A: I’ve never witnessed any domestic violence in my family, never, but when I was kid peddling the papers, I saw it a couple of times and it really bothered the daylights out of me. I would knock on the door to collect the money and inside this man would be beating the daylights out of his wife. I was shocked and didn’t even know enough to move. I was only 14 and, even at 14, I felt inadequate. What could I do? I had two or three occasions as a kid where I saw domestic violence. I saw a man knock a girl to a street outside of a bar. After he got through, his friends, the men from the bar, brought him back in to the bar with their arms around him, like (he) had done something worthy. I wanted to kill him, but, of course, I didn’t react physically. It’s not right to abuse women and children. There’s no reason.
Q: As a father, you’ve had to deal with violence in the death of your daughter. Do you still deal with anger over this?
A: It’s not so much anger. I miss her. You never get over it. A minister called me from Texas and told me (Stephen Peter Morin, who was convicted in the murder and executed in 1985) had found God and wanted to talk to me. I said no. I don’t like the death penalty, but the soul is God’s business the body the state. If the body is out of control, get rid of it.
Q: Has this case ever crept into your art?
A: It may sound strange, but I am kind of afraid to introduce the guy who killed Sheila into my art. I don’t want him getting any kind of special place in this world. I’m not interested in revenge, but I can’t help but feel satisfied that he is gone.
Q: How did you become an artist?
A: I couldn’t give you a good reason why. Some people say it is a gift, but that’s presumptive, as if you were something special. I don’t want to think that way. (His wife said as a child he had osteomyelitis – a bone disease that put him in the hospital for years – and in that time he was encouraged to pursue his art by his mother. It is something he has had to deal with all of his life). I was sick so often. I went deaf. I went blind. The kids used to ask me “Mr. Whalen, do you have a wooden leg?”
Q: What kind of artist are you – a social painter?
A: I don’t know. Some people call me an Ash Can painter, that was a type of painter in the late 1800s, early 1900s in New York City that instead of painting pretty things they painted the people in the tenements and women hanging out their laundry.
Q: Is that the way you see yourself?
A: I’d rather be doing that than painting a horse galloping towards a sunset. That’s not me. I’ve probably done between 4,000 and 5,000 paintings over the years. Many of them had a social outlook. A lot of them were barroom paintings, because in the barroom paintings there’s a lot of opera going on – good and bad. I never wanted to paint pin-up girls. I wanted to preserve images in the street.
Q: Do you have any favorites?
A: I did a painting 35 years ago. It won first prize in the Buffalo Society of Artists. It showed a woman passed out on a little front porch with beer cans all around her. She even had a small tattoo on her arm. I used to see this woman on the way to church on Washburn Street. I liked her, but I didn’t know her. I painted her, not in front of her, but I had so much information in my head. I called it Jenny Light. But I do like pleasant things. I don’t go around in life looking for poor drunks in the gutter.
Q: How long did you teach?
A: I retired in 1986. I taught 35 years, at least 30 years at North Park (middle school). I taught a little at (Niagara) County Community College.
Q: Did you like teaching?
A: I loved it. Loved it. You’re not teaching a vocation. You are trying to teach an appreciation, a connect, between culture and art and citizenship. Not being disaffected by what’s happening.
Q: Were you a pretty tough teacher?
A: I didn’t mean to be. But I wanted authority. The frustrating part about teaching is did you do anything or don’t you know. You don’t get feedback right away. I was quite dramatic, but that was my way of keeping the attention.
Q: Art has got to be a tough thing to teach.
A: Usually people took it because they didn’t want to take math.
Q: Is there anything else you’ve wanted to be?
A: I thought about being a priest, but I got sick again and I thought that’s too much for those people (in a parish) to take on. They don’t need a sick priest. That and guilt. That’s the Irish thing you have to have guilt.
Q: Just Irish guilt or did you do something?
A: A little of both, but I am not going to confession here.
Calendars are available in Lockport at Ticklebridge Co-op Market, 12 Market St.; Art and Soul Gift Shop, 247 Market St.; and the Niagara County History Center, 215 Niagara St.
Those dealing with domestic violence can contact the YWCA of Niagara hotline all hours of the day at 433-6716.
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