This conversation with Joseph LaMarque is the seventh in my series of profiles on African-American fine artists and leaders of cultural organizations in St. Louis which now include (in alphabetical order): Rene Dimanche Jr., Ron Himes, Joseph La Marque, Edna J. Patterson Petty, Robert Powell, Freida L. Wheaton, and Rochleigh Z. Wholfe for a total of a dozen posts so far. I’ll be continuing this series, so watch for it.
I first met Joe La Marque at the Urban League’s Black Fine Art Exhibit. I was so taken with this African mask that I later bought it. That is totally unusual for me, because I have so much of my own art and the art of friends to find a place for in my home that I rarely puchase art. But this mask struck me as being so cheerful…and such a contempory take on an ancient ritual form that I loved it. As I studied the mask in my home I discovered it was made—extremely well-made—of humble materials like plywood, wire, twine, and such. It’s all in the crafting and once again we see “There is no art without craft.”
Riehlife: Joe, you grew up in a house full of women. Your art training began as you learned to embroider and paint watercolors as a child at home. How old were you when you began making things?
JLM: I was eight or nine years old.
Riehlife: Would you tell us more about this early home training and your family?
JLM: My oldest sister and her husband raised me. She had two daughters also. As a youngster, we used to take road trips to the Ozarks. Along the way I fell in love with the trees in their change of colors, also the old farm buildings bleached from time and the sun. I tried to put the scenes on paper, using my tin of watercolor paints and my one or two brushes. Later in life as my interest continued I experimented with oils. I’ve been experimenting with various mediums ever since.
As Joe and I came to know more about one another, we discovered more correspondences between our family experiences and I wanted him to meet my father, which he did, the one time I was able to lure my father over to my place in the Central West End of St. Louis, away from his home territory.
JLM: I view art as a part of everyday living. Creation through the medium at hand is a basic part of my being.
In 1976 we formed the Creative Company with Solomon Thurman and Ken Calvert in association with other artists such as Vernon Smith and Dexter Silvers. My association with these other artists empowered me to work harder and continuously. I’ve been in two other artist collectives as well: Creative Coalition and Zuka Arts Guild.
Riehlife: Say more about working in a variety of media. How does one feed the other? How do you know when to swing from one media to another?
JLM: Working in three dimensions gives me a better insight when I’m painting on a flat surface. Wood has always been my main love. Most wood I use is determined by its shape, color, grain and so on. I follow the shape and grain. This tells me what to expect. I don’t really make plans every time I set out to make something. Sometimes things just happen.
Riehlife: Did you receive formal art training or did you mainly teach yourself through observation and practice?
JLM: I have studied with many individual artists. I started by reading and practicing. I have taken art courses at Forest Park Senior College and Florissant Valley at Forest Park in St. Louis. I studied photography, figure drawing, and perspective drawing at Florissant Valley. Watercolor, acrylic, and clay modeling. I have also taken classes in upholstering, bartending, real estate, and sewing.
Riehlife: How do you share with other artists through community involvement?
JLM: I’ve helped build floats and ridden in several Annie Malone May Day Parades for the Ville neighborhood, an old community identified with the historic Black community in St. Louis. This is an annual parade, now held downtown, to benefit orphaned children. I’ve also helped create murals on public buildings and galleries.
Riehlife: I love the phrase “seasoned artist” in your bio. That feels like quite an achievement. What are the new challenges that continue to excite you?
JLM: I have visions of combining various materials such as wood with clay, copper, and other found materials into one work of art. I’ve been making some clay sculpture and paintings based around my brother James’ life who played baseball in the Negro Leagues. James would send me advertising posters of his upcoming games. The colorful designs propelled me into a lifetime of creating expressive art.
Riehlife: Joe, you recently had an exciting experience in selling a wonderful piece I originally saw in the Urban League National Convention fine arts exhibit. The piece is titled “Tribute to Louis Satchmo Armstrong” and is a carved trumpet mounted on black velvet inside a wooden box. Behind the mouthpiece you draped a white handkerchief symbolic of Armstrong’s trademark. You sold that piece to Oscar Joyner as a gift for his father Tom Joyner, nationally known radio personality. That must have been a fine moment. Can you tell us more about what that feels like?
JLM: It gave me a feeling of accomplishment to make something that someone else valued and saw as a treasured gift.
The trumpet is made out of sycamore. It’s satisfying to take materials that most people would consider nothing and to make something of value. That’s the essence of my art and I think most artists feel something similar.
This project was inspired by the struggle New Orleans is going through following the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina since 2005. Each media report reminded me of its rich music history. I thought of Satchmo as the godfather of New Orleans jazz; he was the first ambassador to spread this musical art form throughout the world. As I carved, sanded, and rubbed the wood, my anthology CD of Satchmo played in my studio. Creating “In Memory of Louis Satchmo Armstrong” allowed me to feel a connection to the nomadic people of New Orleans and in a small way honor one of its famous citizens.
Riehlife: Joe, I enjoy knowing you. Your art has a strength and gentle humor that’s good to see. Your art makes a real contribution to the world. Thank you for being my guest on Riehlife today.