Joseph O'Sickey interview, 21 June 2006

This oral history with artist Joseph O'Sickey covers a number of topics, including recollections of events in 20th century local and national history, personal experiences as a soldier (World War II), artist, and educator.

Participants: O'Sickey, Joseph (interviewee)
Collection: WPA Art in Cleveland
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Joseph O'Sickey [00:00:00] The old city was better than the new city. The old city of Cleveland was better than the new city because the old city had a market, more than one market. It also had streetcars, horses and carriages, peddlers. It had gypsy encampments. It had had a zoo that was called a zoo, not a zoological garden, and it had baseball diamonds all over the city, baseball fields, swimming pools, parks. It wasn't... the green space wasn't used for confinement of minorities. The green space was used for parks and it wasn't used to have the census have people move in from from everywhere into the... [inaudible] keep the census count low because parks were, could start being considered part of the city, and so the city became overcrowded because the planning groups were lying about the census figures, and so there was a lot of hypocrisy in the town. I went to a school that was both black and white and Slavs. I went to East Tech, right in the heart of the ghetto. I used to be able to walk over to 30th and Euclid to John Huntington and walk right through Central and every place else without feeling that I was going to be mugged, and the streetcar allowed transport all over the city for the people, citizens of the city. You could go anywhere with a pass, the streetcars were safe, and the schools were certainly better, especially the schools I went to. Charles Dickens which was considered one of the elementary art schools. Emphasis on the arts. We had three art teachers. Art classes were elective. You could go to an art class three times a week for an hour and a half, and right through the whole three-year school period.

Interviewer [00:03:34] When did you first become aware that you were an artist? When did you start to think about this may be a career, this may be something you focus on?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:03:44] I wasn't aware I was an artist, I was aware that people encouraged me to draw, and that was, my mother was working with, at the time she had three kids, and she was working and and my older brother and my younger sister went with one grandmother and I went with another. I went with the genteel side of the family and and my grandmother, maternal grandmother, kept a barnyard which was very interesting, because she would buy not only various birds that interested her, colorful birds, but she would also buy eggs that were being sold, and she didn't know whether they were pheasant eggs or guinea hen or what. So, but I was kept busy. Being the only kid with elders, I was kept busy drawing. I spent most of my time drawing. I was about four years old, and my mother used to bring me home. Because I was a good kid, she would bring me home a box of animal crackers, and I always liked the little boxes, etc, and, uh, and we used to go to ... my father loved baseball. So Sunday afternoon he'd take my older brother and me to the zoo, and we were very young because I remember that my brother was chastised for walking home from the zoo, which was about five miles when he was five years old, and I was left at the zoo by myself. I was three and a half. [Laughter] And my brother was a smart aleck. He would always tell the mounted policemen that he was lost. This looks, this looks sinful, so I will. try it [unclear reference]. So, so he would get a ride over to the baseball field where my father was, and the policemen always knew enough to take him over the third base side to where my father was to claim him. But I was... all through school, I was considered, I was privileged. I wasn't the only kid, but there were always two or three kids that were allowed to draw when the other kids were catching up on their arithmetic. So I'd be, we'd be put in the back of the room and and just... and draw, and also there was this elementary school that every week there was a art supervisor who came around. Oh, incidentally, Charles Dickens also had, the hall was, besides having a swearing in of Ivanhoe, I guess, had watercolors from the old art school with Paul Travis, Bill Coombs, Wilcox, everybody had a watercolor on, and they were in the hall permanently. So we saw those things and also that was a time in the fifth grade I learned there was a Cleveland Museum and went to the Cleveland Museum with my brother and we just took the... where they give you a drawing pad and a pencil and paper and you go up in the galleries and copy paintings. Well, we really didn't enjoy copying paintings that much. So we used to go out, walk out the back door, not the front door, because they'd want to know what you're doing with the drawing board. Go out the back door and go over to the gardens there and sit down and draw there. And they had the monkey house there which they moved to the Cleveland Zoo and because that was the zoo before early zoo and my brother used to go down to Rockefeller Park where the people fished. Incidentally, Wade Park had rowboats in the lagoon, and so did Rockefeller Park. They also allowed ice skating there in the wintertime, and that was great, until the museum complained about marble stairs being scratched by ice skates, and so they cut that out. They also cut out the boats. They cut the boats out pretty much in all the parks except Brookside Park, almost last of all Garfield Park. [Crosstalk] So but, but that's... My family were speed skaters, and we used to race, and I raced, I skated in the races on Wake Park when I was a kid, and I raced for a number of years on Rockefeller pond. And there were very large crowds and we'd get 30,000 spectators on a Sunday afternoon over at Rockefeller Park and watch the speed skating.

Interviewer [00:10:45] That's amazing.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:10:50] It was really fun. I probably have some old clippings. I had some wonderful clippings of my uncles when they were with the B.F. Keith number one show. They had second billing, so they were a top act, and a woman figure skater was the world's champion figure skater at the time. She was the leading act. But they were called the Ben Boys. The Ben Boys were the hit act always because they did... it, it was... they were banned in Boston because the act was too dangerous, and that was, one of my uncles he was dressed in a clown suit and, incidentally, that clown suit is almost what... in the paintings, almost, what he was wearing. I had those, I had several photographs, but I gave them to him, to Anton, who was the clown, and Anton, I had a photograph of Anton with a chimpanzee over at the Cincinnati Zoo, and he was entertaining during World War I, but I had some very nice theatrical photographs of them, and one of, I don't know how they did it, it was Ben jumping over Antone's head. Antone sat in a chair and and Ben would jump over Anton's head with ice skates and the skates would go close to his head that's what got them banned. But Ben was remarkable with his jumping even on... He would do in the living room, he would hop on one leg over a chair, a dining chair. And then he would put a pillow or two on it, and he would hop over it with the pillows on top. So he was a great jumper.

Interviewer [00:13:30] So were these arena shows or on a stage?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:13:33] They traveled with the B.F. Keith circuit.

Interviewer [00:13:37] Oh, okay.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:13:38] They were on one of the circuits, and interestingly enough that Eleanor Frampton, who used to teach at Karamu Dancing, and Helen Hewitt, the photographer... Now, that's somebody to look up. Helen Hewitt's photographs or negatives or plates. Because I may have two or three good ones of hers of circuses [that came] to town. But also Helen photographed a barn raising, an Amish barn raising, many years ago and it was a great sequence because it was done back a few years. I lent them, they put them in a case over at Western Reserve School of Architecture and somebody stole them on the weekend. And I was very upset about it because Helen made those for me. And she also made these couple of circus shots for me, which are great and I've got them in some portfolio. But Helen also had some of the most marvelous... they were... all the girls who came into New York and the big city and joined the circus and danced were from Nebraska. It's true. It's like the Koubini girls were from Nebraska. And the ones they married were – one of them – dancers and models from Nebraska. And Helen and, one of our good friends, Wilson, they're out in Kansas now. They're from Kansas, but there were people came from out there and went east. Particularly women, and mostly women who were self-reliant and wanted to get away from the farms and the life there. And Helen was given a camera when she was a little girl and she reminds me of the French photographer who did all the wagons and planes and kites and things. I'll think of his name in a bit. But she photographed medicine shows and the wagons, the covered wagons that came in with all the hoopla and all the medicine that was being sold. The photographs are interesting because they were being sold to farmers and Indians. So these Indians are there and also all these farmers and they're gathered around these medicine men, and she has wonderful photographs, snapshots, done with a box camera of those days. And I think they're invaluable.

Interviewer [00:17:48] Do you know who has her photographs now? Where would I look to find them?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:17:53] Well, I tried to find... there was a doctor. Oh, goodness, they called her by her first name, but they called her doctor. She was a doctor, and I believe it's either University Hospital or one of the hospitals. But she was then the administrator of their estate. That's all I know. I tried to find... We had heard that Frampy... We were in Maine and... we came home and we found out that... or heard that Frampy had died, and we were coming. She had a little house that Bob Little built. Designed on Euclid Heights Boulevard. A little tiny house on the south side of the street near Fairmount and Cedar, down that corner. And we came back to visit Helen from Maine to see how she was doing and we kept knocking at the door until the neighbor came out and said that Helen had died and that was within a couple of months of Frampy, and Helena always said that she would die like an Indian. She'd put her face to the wall and go. I think that's what she did.

Interviewer [00:19:54] When you were in high school, you said that visiting the art museum was, I imagine, once you found it, you visited it often, and you start to imagine, when you were in high school, did you know that you were going to go to art school, or was that something that developed over time?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:20:14] I didn't know, but when they had a competition for scholarships, this is where my teachers were wonderful. I had over 200 watercolors. And they took 25 of them and they bought the matte board and cut the mattes and put them together and entered them at the art school for the competition. And the art school was restricting the entries to 10, but they... Kunzeker persuaded them that they should look at more, so they had to look at all 25 of them. So I got a scholarship, otherwise I wouldn't have gone.

Interviewer [00:21:36] Had other people in your family gone to college?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:21:39] No. Oh yes. The other side of the family they had a couple went to Ohio State.

Interviewer [00:21:50] So this wasn't just new for... sort of a double thing... not only didn't you have that close tradition of people going to college but you also didn't... you didn't just go to college, you went to art school which must have seemed very exotic to the rest of your family.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:22:10] Yes, I think some people resented it, but that didn't matter. My parents were... My father told us, his kids, and... One of the things or two of the things I learned from him was... because he and his brothers did it... He said, "Do whatever you want to in life, but do it now," and... So that's what I felt about it. If I wanted to draw, I did it at the time. Because he and his brothers all left home very early, and they became professional baseball... my father was a professional baseball player. His two brothers, they were world champion speed skaters. Anton was world champion in 1916 and and I did have an almanac with that in it but I gave it to my uncle because none of his kids knew about him being World's Champion and he never told, he never talked about it.

Interviewer [00:24:11] What was his name again?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:24:12] Anton O'Sickey.

Interviewer Two [00:24:15] Who did your father play for?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:24:16] He played up in the Iron Range, up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Because the baseball players were revered in those small towns. There were rivalries. And they were paid more to play there than they were in the major leagues. Because they were also given a job in the wintertime. So my father was shortstop and dog catcher. [Laughter] It seemed related. So anyway. And Ben, not only was he a speed skater and could jump phenomenally, he was one of the two best match bicycle riders in this country. Professional. And they raced over at the Velodrome in New Jersey, and when the six-day bike races came to Cleveland, Willie Spencer, who was his rival, I don't know how I remember his name, Willie Spencer would come over to Ben's house. Which was next door to our house. And my brother, older brother, and myself were invited to visit with, with the six-day riders who were not on the track at the moment. And so we met some of the riders from Europe and and listened to their yarns and their stories about bicycle racing and about the old days and etc, etc. So it was a kind of an exciting time and we looked forward to that. And my older brother and I, we used to go down to the six-day races, and I used to draw there, too. And I probably still have some drawings, and I gave some away to bicycle riders and fans, because they were of the old public hall and the track there.

Interviewer [00:27:04] When you went to the Institute, who did you, uh, if you don't mind me being... who did you study, who influenced you the most at the Institute?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:27:15] Well I was influenced first by John Huntington, uh, [and] by Paul Travis, because he was there as a celebrity from Africa. And you know and I had read all the travel books about Africa and looking for the White Nile, the Blue Nile, etc etc and so I was very interested in Travis as a person and also as a talker. He was very well-read and it cued me into a lot of reading that I wouldn't have known. Also, he interested me at the art school, and the other person I found... I found two people effective for me. One was Carl Gairdner, and the other was Bill Eastman. Because of Bill Eastman having a broader range of interest in art than some of the other people. I was not interested in people who taught you how to draw with three values, five values, this kind of thing. I felt I was beyond that, and I thought it was a waste of time. Sometimes I would get permission to leave the class and I'd go over across the railroad tracks and paint. But it was... I would, I would say, say... Also, probably a first design class from Kenny Bates, because we worked often from motifs from nature. For me, the first years at the art school were Mickey Mouse.

Interviewer [00:30:17] You had already been through it.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:30:18] I had been through it. I knew all the English watercolors, you know. I knew fewer French painters than I knew English painters. The very earlier or contemporaries of... of Turner, Bonington, Blake, and some of the Australians who were there, Condor, and people like that. Well, in fact, the watercolor class teacher just told me to go do whatever I wanted, you know. She said, "You should be teaching, not me." [Laughter] But I always did a lot of work. And the most difficult time, I tell students, the most difficult time for... anybody who wants to be an artist, is when you get out of school, you have to get a job, you get married, or, you know, you get some responsibilities, and the first thing you know is that you don't have enough energy to do what you really wanted to do.

Interviewer [00:32:11] Right.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:32:12] So...

Interviewer [00:32:13] That's a good question. How did you do it?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:32:16] I did all those, all those little sketches, you know, and all those little watercolors that you see, and those big bird drawings and all. I did those... came about a special way, which I remember very well. I was painting a large painting, about the size of that screen, in a five by seven foot bedroom that we had. That was, formerly had been the baby's room. He got my room and I got that as a drawing room, and I was doing this painting and I worked on that painting for over six months, maybe seven months. And I said, "You know, I'm a fool, this will never turn out. It'll never be any good." So I destroyed it, and I said, "I'm only going to do small things, and I'll start off, I'll only do small things, and I will do four or five every evening after dinner." So I would sit down and I would draw, or on a weekend, I would sit down and draw, and draw it and color it all in the same evening. So I did all those zoo things, and there were improvisations from other sketches, they don't look, in any way... I wanted to draw them freely and draw them and paint them another way and work out my color thoughts. So I did that and I also started doing... I would do the drawings of the bird, drawings, and I would only... I just used Japanese... well, colors in Japan, oil, because it dried right away, and it was cheaper than India ink. I could buy a can and put a big brush in it, and I couldn't do that in the ink bottle, and so I would get these big lecture pads and draw on those. And each drawing is a spin-off of what preceded it. I came to a conclusion that variations are not, there's no myth to variations because you cannot do two the same. General Motors can't make two Cadillacs the same. So nothing is identical. Nothing humans can make can be the same. So one's a takeoff of you follow your principle of how you organize what you see with the new group. So each time, I knew that I had some given things. I had a birdcage, I had a bird, I had a little bell that was part of it, I had a feeding dish, I had a cuttle bone, I had a some debris, birdseed around, etc. So all those things. And it was all sitting on something else on a tray to keep the place clean, or a newspaper or something. So there were always a given group of things, but every mark and every drawing is different. And I felt that it's how you act on a situation that shows whether you're creative, even if it's going after a baseball. So, my feeling is that there's no proper way to draw and it's a waste of time to busy the students with it. You have to teach them. It's a problem of perception and of relationships, perceiving relationships, which should be taught, should be exercised in school. It saves a lot of time with students. It saves them three years [Laughter]

Interviewer [00:37:51] What were your memories of Henry Keller?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:37:54] Oh, Henry Keller, he was considered sort of a sour ball by some of the students. But he didn't pay much attention to me in class. And when I got out of the army, he said, "You know," he took me up to the faculty room and he said, "You know," he said, "Joe, I didn't, I didn't interfere with you purposely in class." He said, "I thought you had something special, and I didn't want to interfere with it." And I told that to one of my painter friends, and he said, "Well, thanks a lot." [Laughter] He said, you know, it was certainly easy on him.

Interviewer [00:39:12] You went in to the armed forces after you graduated from the Cleveland School of Art?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:39:18] I was working at a display house, and I was drafted. And I was drafted nine months before the war. I was drafted in March, and the war started December 7th, and I was in for almost five years. I was in until everything was over in Japan before I could get transportation back to this country. I was in India at the time, in Burma. So we had to fly to Karachi and I had to... I wouldn't say I had to, it was... I had to but it was nice! I was in Karachi for about six weeks. The food was good, the place was colorful, and there were four of us who would rent a sailboat in the harbor and go sailing up the bay and up against the tide, tacking against the tide, and then we'd swim in... hop off and then we'd swim back to the beach. We felt like we were all, you know, Johnny Weissmuller because the tide was moving at about eight knots an hour, you know, and here you are swimming at ten knots and you're just looking as the landscape is going by. It's great.

Interviewer [00:41:14] Were you in India throughout the war?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:41:17] No, I was all over. I was on South, I was in Tennessee, I was out West in Camp Murray, Swamp Murray, out West. And then one morning the fog parted, and I looked out and there's Mount Rainier right next door, and you know, and it was, it looked like a strawberry sundae because the sun was hitting it, it was all pink, it was huge. So I start, I start doing little watercolors of Mount Rainier, every day I would do a watercolor. Every day I could see it or see part of it I would do a little sketch of Mount Rainier. People were nice to me in the Army. I did, I did signs and I was allowed to paint and was given a tent to paint in, and that was... depending on the officers. And then I was sent back to Tennessee, and from there to Kentucky. And In Kentucky, I ran the obstacle course professionally. I was the best obstacle course runner in camp, because I made a business of learning how to do it. So I was asked to form an obstacle course team in the company, because we had a West Point captain, and he wanted to win everything. So I said, "Well, the only [way] will ever win everything is if we train every morning and we get the afternoon off." [Laughter] So, we did, but I had taken the course apart. And each part of the course, I perfected how to do it, and how to... I learned that, you know, if you're going to swing on a rope, you always have to pick a moving rope. Otherwise, you'll go halfway, go almost across and swing back and you'll be hanging in the middle. You also have to learn how to let go, let go of the rope, it's very important in timing. So I'd run ahead, catch, look at all the ropes that were hanging down and pick the one that was closest to me, that was swinging up toward me, and then I'd swing on it and off I was. And everybody would be scrambling up the pit or something, and I won 17 out of 18 Saturday mornings there. The only reason I didn't win once is because my pack got hooked on one of those sewer pipes, galvanized sewer pipes that had a burr on it, and so I came in second.

Interviewer [00:45:17] Your duties when you were in the service was painting signs and what other kinds of things?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:45:22] I was driving a vehicle on the Lido Road. I put 84,000 miles on, wore out three Jeeps and all the shocks, and I got a break from that because I started getting swollen kidneys. And so they made me mail orderly then. That gave me a great chance to read, because you would have to go meet the mail train. Nobody knew when the mail train was coming in, allegedly, and so I'd go early, go three hours early and took Tolstoy with me, or Dostoevsky, and I had a very good friend from Cornell University there who was a interpreter. He spoke and read and wrote Chinese and also he taught literature and he did his PhD in Greek drama. And he would pass me his books. But there were about three, among the enlisted men, there were only, I think, three or four readers. And when the books would come in from Special Services, we knew, we knew which were the good books and which were the Perry Masons. [Laughter]

Interviewer [00:47:15] There was more [inaudible] the Perry Masons than the good books?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:47:17] Right, so, the four of us would select the good books and then we'd exchange them. And so I drove for the mail and I also took it up the road into Burma. We had a camp in Shingbuyang, which is now center of a gold rush. And at that time, Shingbuyang was an airstrip and a weather station, and the flying tigers flew out of that strip, the interceptors. And the weather station had a pole that showed how many feet of rain there was that season. And that's one season. They had a pole with lettering on then... bamboo, they had a piece of bamboo, a tree tied, well a sapling tied... to the top of that, and they said there had been thirty-seven feet of rain so far that season.

Interviewer [00:48:46] It rained every day.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:48:47] It rained every day, yes.

Interviewer [00:48:50] You were able to keep producing art, and were you sort of anticipating becoming an art teacher when the war was over, or being an artist?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:49:01] No, I just drew what interested me, and I had a really wonderful trip from up the Brahmaputra River. We had to take a riverboat from east of Calcutta. We had to take a riverboat for four days and four nights up the river. And then we got on a little toy train again. But that was a wonderful experience. It was like the Conrad story, the Heart of Darkness. And so I savored it, I thought it was a wonderful experience. And I have some drawings in there, in that portfolio on Africa and India, of the riverboats. We used to have to sit on a sandbar and have dinner, and the dinner consisted of corned beef heated in garbage cans, and we were always dive-bombed by the kites. The, you know, the hawk-like... it's both a hawk and a vulture, and it's all over the Middle East, Africa, Egypt, India... And these birds, one would come and knock a mess kit out of somebody's hand, and then the rest of them would come along and grab everything off the ground. So they were... you know, you get these birds come dive bombing, and sometimes a guy'd get nicked on a hand, or one guy got a cut above his lip from a talon, because the bird was trying to get the thing off his fork. (laughs) So, it was a unique experience and I did some drawings of that, I have them in there.

Interviewer [00:51:57] You saved artwork from the very beginning then, there was something that possessed you to keep the record of what you'd been doing.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:52:08] I did. I didn't have any of the things out from the West. And I didn't have any of the things from before I went to the army. My parents got rid of them when they had to move to California for my father's health, he had asthma. And so she unloaded all that stuff. It really didn't matter. You know, I could lose paintings and they wouldn't bother. You know, I'd be sorry to lose them, but it... It doesn't damage where I am.

Interviewer Two [00:53:20] Who did you say you traveled west with again?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:53:24] Paul Travis and John Paul Miller.

Interviewer [00:53:27] That was right after the war?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:53:30] Right after the war. We traveled from, I think it was about June 6th to about the beginning of the first week or so in August. And then in August I took up with Algesa [D'Agostino].

Interviewer [00:53:50] And that was that.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:53:53] That was the best move I had ever made.

Interviewer [00:54:00] Cut for today. I think this is sort of a nice point. We'll start after the war next time. That's what it seemed to me.

Joseph O'Sickey [00:54:07] We'll forget the war.

Interviewer [00:54:08] We'll forget the war.[audio interrupted]

Interviewer Two [00:54:15] [inaudible] ...whole different person?

Joseph O'Sickey [00:54:17] Very different, and the two fellows who ran the antique shop ... Charlie and... I forgot his name... on Carnegie, down at the bottom of Cedar. You remember that?

Interviewer [00:54:37] Yes

Joseph O'Sickey [00:54:38] Well Charlie said that Algesa civilized him. [Laughter]

Interviewer [00:54:54] June 21st, 2006, that was Joseph O'Sickey.

WPA Art in Cleveland

Interviews with members of the Cleveland Artists Foundation (ARTneo), focusing on WPA art and architecture, collected between 2004 and 2006 by public school teachers in the Teaching American History (TAH) grant-funded Academy of American History summer institute at Cleveland State University, sponsored by the US Department of Education.