In 1985, Joe Average got some pretty bad news.
He was diagnosed with HIV at a time when that carried a dire prognosis. The Vancouver resident made a decision that if he was facing the great beyond he would devote what was left of the rest of his life to making art. Up until then he had treated art making as a hobby, he told ARTSFILE in an interview.
He was unemployed at the time and “the idea of going to job interviews wasn’t going to inspire me to live, so I challenged myself to see if I could live off my art.”
He started holding regular showings of his work in his apartment. He priced his work so that if he sold one, his rent was paid. In those days he was paying about $200 a month in the west end of Vancouver.
His stylized, colourful, paintings quickly gained traction and he became well known in the city.
He said he hasn’t painted since the year 2000, but his work still attracts attention.
This past April, one of his creations was put on a $1 coin and on a special $10 silver collector’s coin in full colour, both made by the Royal Canadian Mint. The coin pays tribute to Parliament’s passing of legislation that initiated the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada in 1969.
But that’s not the only national institution showcasing Joe’s work.
Starting at 4 p.m. on Aug. 23 for three consecutive days, the National Arts Centre’s Kipnes Lantern, the largest transparent LED screen in North America, will display several of his works.
His art will be visible from Parliament Hill and the area around the National War Memorial on the three-storey high lantern.
The NAC is using Joe’s art to mark Capital Pride in Ottawa. The Lantern has in the past featured works by the Indigenous artists Simon Brascoupé and Christi Belcourt.
The works featured this weekend include: Crazy Gigolo in Search of a China Shop, Uniglobe Kitty, Lovey, Millicent Moderne, Plain Jane, Miss Bird of Paradise and Il Trovatore, a work created by Joe for the Vancouver Opera’s production of Il Trovatore in the late 1990s.
He is also a photographer and has documented, among other things, his struggles with lipoatrophy, a side effect of antiretroviral therapy. He has often contributed to humanitarian causes. For example, he has donated the honorarium he received from the NAC for the use of his work. The $1,000 will go to The Hnatyshyn Foundation.
Reached at his apartment, he said he hopes his art will inspire the imagination of those who see it.
“I rarely like to explain things and I keep titles very simple because I don’t want to influence the viewer in any way. I don’t want to make them view it differently than they just do.”
He has often supported causes in the past. While the requests are fewer today, “I still get asked to support things and lend my images to things. For the most part I agree, if it means something to me. It usually has something to do with people being sick or kids or animals.”
He doesn’t have pets.
“I live in a penthouse on top of a three-storey walkup in the west end and I have befriended quite a few birds.”
He interacts with a seagull family and has a crow couple that visit him every day. You’ll see birds represented in his art on his website.
These days he is doing a bit of painting but not on a canvas.
“I paint digitally now and then. A friend gave me a program and I eventually figured it out and I’ve posted a few things and people have responded well even though it doesn’t look like the other stuff.”
The pieces displayed by NAC were done mostly in 1990s.
The centre approached him with the idea of using his work on the Lantern. They had picked the pieces they wanted to use.
“I did have some input” on the use of the work, he said.
“When they first mocked it up, the images they chose were set on a white background. They put different colours in the background.”
That was a problem, he said. He didn’t want them “screwing around with the integrity of my artwork. You can’t do that.”
The NAC was worried that all that bright white light would “blow out the electronics of their massive display screen.”
He suggested dropping the colour and the white and going with “the absence of colour. They said (the background) would be transparent” and he was fine with that.
Joe Average’s work is certainly distinctive. He doesn’t like to put labels on his work but “to appease people I usually say it’s pop art. That kind of covers it OK. When I was a kid I was inspired by animation and cartoons ”
One of his first experiences with colour and animation happened when he was six.
“I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party.” Joe arrived a bit early and knocked on the door.
“And it opened and the console colour TV was on in their living room playing cartoons. I had never seen a colour TV in my life and that colour burned into my retina. I have been trying trying to recreate that feeling ever since.
That’s why his colours are so intense, he said.
He says he stopped painting after a particularly difficult struggle with his health.
“I came out of it and I realized I had no interest in giant cartoon eyes or lips or bright colours any more.”
He got some advice from a wise friend and started to produce high quality reproductions of his work which he offers for sale on his website.
“He does work when he feels inspired.
“I am fortunate. Last year I was whining to a friend about the fact that I was so broke that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stay in the apartment. She said, ‘Remind me again why you’re not on disability?'”
He had never thought about it and “plus I didn’t want assistance from anyone. I wanted to do it on my own.
She pointed out he couldn’t stand and work for eight hours a day and other reasons why he was a candidate for a disability pension. She did paperwork and he was accepted.
The pension means he can do art for fun now and not worry about having to sell his work. In many ways he has come full circle to his beginnings as an artist.