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December 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

The crazy quilt The crazy quilt (December 16, 2005)

Cultures meld at CSMA in Afro-Asian art exhibit by JoeSam

By Molly Tanenbaum

Any Mountain View resident would recognize the artwork of "JoeSam," the San Francisco-based artist with the funny name. His sculpture "Boy and Girl Playing in the Calla Lilly Field" occupies the space between City Hall and the Center for Performing Arts. He also has a sculpture of kids playing baseball and basketball outside Crittenden Middle School's sports center. Both have been in Mountain View for over a decade.

"Boy and Girl" is but one of JoeSam's many works installed throughout the country, most of them featuring his characteristic whimsical, active and brightly colored figures. His mixed-media artwork is currently on display at the Community School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, and has already begun to woo and mesmerize the children who've seen it.

Recently, as JoeSam's work was just being hung in Finn Center's Mohr Gallery, Linda Covello, CSMA's art director, noticed a mother bringing her preschool-aged daughter through the gallery on their way out from a class. According to Covello, the preschooler stood in awe in front of a large painting called "Patches," pointing out the flowers and shapes and colors in all its different segments.

"She was just floored. She didn't want to go anywhere," Covello said.

"Patches" is one of JoeSam's Afro-Asian series, of which there are seven at CSMA. One constant in his work is the portrayal of people of color, specifically African-Americans. The Afro-Asian series on display at CSMA this winter is his latest embodiment of thinking about race, culture and ethnicity in the United States.

For this series, JoeSam incorporated the quilt concept to parallel the gradual coming together of Asian and African-American cultures in the United States.

"Quilts have been in my brain for years," he said.

According to JoeSam, quilts have played an important role in Asian and black communities throughout this country's history -- slaves made quilts that contained codes for escaping slavery, and the Japanese held in internment camps also created quilts.

"People thought they were just old slaves making quilts but they were maps and routes," he said.

Each piece in JoeSam's series has a quilt theme, with painted patches of canvas linked together, with juxtaposed Asian and African characters. Most have vivid colors, but there are a few exceptions. "Brazil" is a large, earthy-brown, textured canvas with two feather headdresses and the stenciled word "Bahia." "White Squares" is JoeSam's only work that is devoid of color -- it is a giant tiled, white-washed panel with mini stencils of Asian and African characters.

And "Beans and Rice" is an enormous multi-paneled gate-like structure with finches and roosters alongside both types of the recurring characters, topped with an Asian mask and fan. Along the bottom is a shelf with alternating jars of beans and rice, staple foods for each culture.

JoeSam likes to observe the melding of Asian and African-American cultures in various settings. Examples include Koreans and blacks beginning to reconcile in Los Angeles after the riots, black basketball stars adorned with Asian character tattoos and marrying Asian women, and Asian youth's involvement in rap culture. In every case, the artist says he is seeing more cultural mixing than when he was growing up in Harlem with limited exposure to other cultures.

"There's this strange affinity happening," he said. "That whole combination is fascinating."

He says blacks and Asians in the United States have held stereotypes about the other group, but that the two are gradually learning more about each other and allowing those stereotypes to fall away.

"African-Americans didn't have a clue about all of this," he said. "I thought all Latinos were Puerto Ricans."

Also on display in this mixed media exhibit are pieces from his "Chocolate" and "Heaven and Earth" series.

Covello noted that children passing through the Finn Center halls have taken a special liking to the "Chocolate" series because each has a different name -- like "Heart" and "Feet" and "Boat" -- and it is up to the viewer to find the object in the painting.

Covello sought out JoeSam to display his art at Mohr Gallery because of his public art in downtown Mountain View.

"They're signature Mountain View to me," she said. "I felt he was already part of the community."

JoeSam received no formal art training. He grew up an orphan in Harlem, and though he always excelled in art and was awarded scholarships for his talent, he pursued other academic disciplines in school. He earned his doctorate in education and psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and worked as an administrator in human services until age 45 when he decided to concentrate on his art full time.

Now 65, with a studio at the Hunter's Point shipyard in San Francisco, JoeSam has created an enormous body of work that began with his Black West series, includes public works throughout the country, and is constantly growing and changing along with JoeSam's interests. He has illustrated children's book and album covers, and miniature pin-versions of his public art sculptures can be spotted on people's lapels.

"Art is my love," he said. "I started late. I got so much more to do."


E-mail Molly Tanenbaum at [email protected]


What: JoeSam Mixed Media Works
Where: The Mohr Gallery at Community School of Music and Arts at Finn Center, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View
When: Through Jan. 25, Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; artist's talk and opening reception Dec. 9, 6 to 8 p.m.
Cost: Free
Info: Visit

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