Born in Baltimore in 1926, Joan Erbe grew up in Windsor Hills on the West Side. Her father, a coffee salesman, often took her to circus side shows, where they were soon on a first name basis with many of the “freaks”. Her mother always encouraged her to create. As a response to a young Joan’s “I’m bored” sighs, she’d lock Joan in her room and state, “You can’t come out until you do some artwork!”
Joan attended a Maryland Institute program for children at the age of 7, studying under Perna Krick (who later became Reuben Kramer’s wife). Joan loved circus animals, and one of her paintings of elephants was published in The Baltimore Sun a year later. Helen Journeay sculpted the portrait of “Joan” at about ten years old, which now resides in the Maryland Historical Society. Ms. Erbe got involved with many older artists which further inspired her to pursue art. During her late teens, she spent summers with her aunt and uncle in upstate NY, where they hosted a variety of artists and actors, many from the Art Students League, and she eventually studied under painter Louis Bouche. The rest of the year she studied under Ann Didusch Schuler, and visiting artist Jacques Maroger. She gradually leaned towards expressionistic work.
Joan married at 18 years of age and had two daughters, Joan and Constance. In her early 20’s she received two scholarships to Maryland Institute; she decided to study portraiture with Leonard Bahr. Along with painting, she also delved into ceramics, sculpture and printmaking. She studied her reflection in a jar or any round metallic surface, and developed a style of Botero-like characters with faces stretched abnormally wide, and painted in rich earth tones.
Joan married George Udel in 1954. (He was a founder of the Baltimore Film Forum; Raoul Middleman memorialized him in a painting which hangs in the lobby of the Charles Theatre.) Joan had another child, Jacob, and showed her work in movie theatres and in group shows, until she had her first solo exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1966, with many more shows to come at the IFA Gallery in D.C., many notable universities, the Corcoran Gallery, the Library of Congress, and numerous galleries across the nation. She received many honors, awards and prizes along the way. Joan had always painted in oils, but made the transition to acrylics in the 1980’s, and developed a new vibrant color palette for yet another generation of collectors to fall in love with. Since the 1990’s she was represented locally by Gomez Gallery, the Heineman Myers Gallery in Bethesda, and currently at Fleckenstein Gallery.
Joan loved nearly all expressionist painters, and many see a bit of Chagall in her art, though she wouldn’t necessarily call him an influence. She was very intrigued by the patterns in Matisse’s work, as well as the colors in the art of Mexican painters: it’s no surprise then, her repeated use of skeletons and her interest in the inherent design in them, especially the skulls and the rib cage. She always had an active imagination and constantly created, though in her later years she had been more limited to drawings and watercolors. Regardless, her subject matter was still as feisty as she was. For several years she taught a group of professional women artists at the Myerberg Senior Center in the Pikesville/Mt. Washington area. On August 21, 2014, she peacefully passed away at the Gilchrist Center in Baltimore.
1926 – 2014
It’s with great sadness that we acknowledge the peaceful passing of beloved Baltimore artist JOAN ERBE on August 21st, just a few months shy of her 88th birthday.
A headstrong, feisty woman, she created a whole universe of colorful characters drawn from the side show performers, actors and other artists she encountered during her childhood. Their drama and spirit always remained with her throughout her career, and even manifested themselves upon occasion on her glasses and her shoes, which she also painted.
I was so honored to host Joan’s last art exhibit “Characters & Curiosities” here at Fleckenstein Gallery, and to actually have her in attendance at our biggest reception ever. It was the last time most people got to see Joan in public, and she was treated regally, as was deserved. Everyone was just so excited to speak with her in person one more time.
As this news has spread via social media, many people have written about good memories they had of Joan (and her late husband George), of Joan’s work (one wonderful person rescued an awesome piece of hers from a rummage sale), or of being inspired by Joan and her art. All agree she will be greatly missed, this unique individual who brought such joy to the world with her art and exuberance. Mark Barry sums it up wonderfully as he describes Joan as “The best, it was in her fingertips and in her soul.”
– Terrie Fleckenstein
August 22, 2014