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Career in art satisfies Joe Sartor's 'visual appetite'

Mar. 29—MOREHEAD — Much of the artwork by retired art professor Joe Sartor is infused with humor. Or existential threats.

The 85-year-old Missouri native, often inspired by the region's landscape, said one thing he avoids is the sentimental.

"When it feels appropriate, I use (works) to vent moments of concern about our environment, politics or social attitudes," he said. "More often than not, they squeak out a rather dry form of humor."

Sartor's interest in making art goes back to childhood. He grew up in an artistic family: His maternal grandfather carved scrap lumber. Both grandparents, as well as his father, were musically inclined. His brother was a member of the U.S. Air Force Band.

"One of (my uncles) was a gifted country fiddler," he said. "Mother also displayed a natural talent for music, and could play piano by ear."

Although Sartor doesn't play an instrument, he achieved a 1 rating in vocal competition when he was in high school, which he said he believes set him on a path to an artistic career.

"Music set a pathway for future opportunities that enabled me to segue into formal art studies, sensitizing my thoughts and perceptions about form and content on canvas as well," he said.

Even though he said he didn't show artistic talent as a child, he showed artistic interest.

"Since early childhood, I preoccupied myself with drawing, or at least making marks on a surface," Sartor said. "My mother knew she could quell my restlessness in church by providing pencil and paper." He said he also enjoyed drawing on his homework.

"In high school, I was able to take two art classes before graduation and concluded high school with a love for choral singing and art work of any size, shape or color," he recalled.

Upon high school graduation, Sartor said he was trying to map out a future without college, as his grades were average and he thought it was unaffordable. But his brother, a student at Centenary College of Louisiana, recommended him to the director of the school's traveling choir, which nabbed him a scholarship as a "singing art major."

"Travel with the choir yielded numerous museum and gallery visits to nourish my visual appetite," he said.

Adventures continued for Sartor, who joined the U.S. Army after earning his bachelor of arts degree in art. He requested duty in Europe and was accepted into the 7th Army Soldiers' Chorus for a portion of his stint, taking him all over the continent and giving him the chance to see more great works of art.

Discharged in 1965, he returned home and studied graduate-level art at University of Missouri, majoring in drawing and painting, primarily acrylic. He also was a graduate assistant and had the chance to teach drawing and design for non-art majors. Upon graduation, he sent his resume to a teacher placement agency, which is how he came to Morehead State University.

"At that time, a master of arts degree, though not considered 'terminal,' was sufficient for hiring purposes, even at a university," he said. "Baby boomers were enrolling at colleges and universities and it was an ideal time to find a teaching job. Sometimes timing is everything, at least in my experience."

He was hired for a year as instructor of art, teaching basic design and drawing, later adding clay classes.

"It was my good fortune to have contract renewals until I was finally deemed seasoned and worthy of promotions," he said of his 30-year career at MSU. He retired in 2000 as an associate professor emeritus, art.

To understand an artist's work, it's good to hear what they have to say about it in addition to viewing it. Sartor said he's guided by intuition.

"I try to avoid cliched imagery," he said. "Visual puns are a commonality. Many of my paintings are somewhat narrative, and having titles almost seems like a necessity."

Inspiration comes from a variety of diverse places. He lists as influences post-Impressionists like Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet; early Expressionists like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin; Surrealists like Rene Magritte; regionalist painters of the 1930s-40s like Thomas Hart Benton, John Steurat Curry and Grant Woods; American painters like Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth; and "Far Side" creator Gary Larson.

"I believe the gist of my work overall is of a humorous nature. Satiric, too, at times. Or introspective, reflective," Sartor said, noting one of the sources of humor has been Bet and Cecil Ison's Home for Wayward Baby Dolls near Elliottville in Rowan County.

"You will notice an oversized gorilla toy surrounded by little doll figures, trolls, maybe a Barbie, too, mounted on a corner fence post and suspended from sassafras twigs, a prominent hand-painted sign that reads: 'Science goin' on.' That always makes me smile," Sartor said. "And I smile, too, when I approach their house and see a whole family of store mannequins dressed to the nines, and in accordance with particular seasons. They are remarkable people. Bet, a fine contemporary art quilter; Cecil, a retired field archaeologist from the Kentucky Forestry Division. They have been an excellent source for some of my inspirations."

Sartor claims his exhibition record is "quite modest," but he has exhibited in Ecuador, college art galleries in Missouri, Louisiana and Texas, several juried showings at Southern Ohio Museum, Huntington Museum of Art and the now-defunct Ashland Area Art Gallery. As a retiree, he has participated in more shows, including solo exhibits at the Kentucky Folk Art Center, Rowan County Arts Center and the Attic Gallery in Lexington. He said he and his wife, Nancy, regularly show their works at the Grayson Gallery and Art Center.

Like many artists, Sartor's creativity is fed by interacting with other artists.

"I cannot overemphasize the importance of how much I have learned from past teachers and students alike," he said. "It has been an humbling, illuminating journey."

(606) 326-2661 — lward@dailyindependent.com