Joseph Garlock

The Art of Joseph Garlock

What we know about Joseph Garlock (1884-1980) is handed down mostly by word-of-mouth. Some records exist but the information we have is by-in-large the product of recollections of two aging daughters and family lore shared by his grandchildren, now in their fifties.

I became aware of his artwork eight or nine years ago as a result of his daughter Rose’s donations of single pieces of her father’s carved and painted sculpture. They were given to annual fundraising auctions held in Woodstock, New York. The auctions were held to benefit “Family,” the regional social service organization. I was amazed by those small treasures but had no chance to meet and know the donor, then in her eighties.

Rose was a local “character” known as a left wing free thinker, and in her hey day she had a reputation as a hard partier. I am told that she trained at the Adler Institute in New York and lived for decades among the West Village intellectual community. Shortly after World War II, it was also fashionably bohemian for Rose to acquire a dacha style cabin in a remote hollow near the upstate village of Woodstock. For decades the town had been a haven for a wide variety of creative types. Rose fit right in.

Joseph Garlock had immigrated to New York from Russia and her attendant hardships in 1905. In America, his working life included repairing shoes, driving a privately owned bus and, finally, selling fruits and vegetables in his own small store in Bloomfield, New Jersey. In 1949 he retired from a lifetime of hardship and work.

With his children grown, Joseph Garlock found himself with free time on his hands. And so, with Rose’s encouragement he traded in his cobbler shop and fruit stand for a brush and pallet. With the formal retirement of this Russian émigré, a unique American talent was born.

He spent time in Woodstock, staying in his daughter’s cabin. Using enamel paints and an old pie tin as his medium, he conceived his first painting depicting a remarkable likeness to its subject matter, his daughter’s rustic woodland cabin.

One can only speculate on the nature of the muse that took hold of the man. From that point on, Joseph Garlock painted and sculpted obsessively for the next fourteen years. He painted and painted until he was inflicted with palsy, which made it impossible to continue.

His daughters and grandchildren remember him as a largely solitary figure in their household. He lived in a small room in the family’s New Jersey home where he sat on a single sized bed, churning out one painting after another.

Garlock drew on his early life in a Russian Village. He painted pictures of religious ceremonies he had witnessed. He conceived works of American iconography that he drew both from real life and from his imagination, images from popular publications such as Life and Look magazines, as well as local papers in New Jersey.

The weekly pictorials provided him with portraits and images of his heroes and icons, whether they be political, historical, or from our rich popular culture. Here he also discovered the work of earlier masters from Da Vinci to Matisse.

It is believed that his sculpture was made primarily while staying in the country, during the summer and on weekends. The raw materials that he chose, such as stone and tree branches, augmented with discarded bits of tin and man made objects were readily available there. Paintings were most likely done in his extended family home in New Jersey.

It is known that Joseph Garlock regarded his art as a “hobby.” He participated in shows organized by various New Jersey Parks Departments along side model train makers, needle workers, and paint by number artists.

Recent information reveals that at least twice Garlock’s talent was exposed to a wider audience. The Newark Star Ledger featured the “hobbyist” in a story published in the 1950s. Perhaps even more remarkable was that Garlock’s work caught the attention of a man by the name of Albert Van Loen, who was the owner of a small New York Gallery. In April of 1950, after seeing on of Mr. Garlock’s paintings, Van Loen gave Garlock a one-man show at his Gallery. Unfortunately, such accolades were few and far between. For the rest of his life Garlock continued to live and work in obscurity.

He died in 1980 while convalescing in the Workman’s Circle Home in Elizabeth NJ. Inexplicably his daughter Rose gathered all of his artwork (there were literally hundreds of pieces) and stored them in the woodshed in her Woodstock property. The doorway to the shed was covered with pieces of lumber so that its contents could remain hidden.

Twenty-five years later, five years after Rose’s death in 1995, her nieces and nephews gathered at the cabin for a weekend of raking and general clean up. On the last day of maintenance, one of the family members pried open the door to the woodshed on the property. To their utter surprise they came upon a rich collection of paintings and sculpture created by their grandfather. No on had imagined that he had produced the quantity or the quality of artwork that he had. A phone call was made to my gallery. Upon viewing the contents of the woodshed I recognized the importance of what had been found.

It was appropriate that the first exhibition of Joseph Garlock’s artwork in over 30 years was presented at the Woodstock Guild in 2001. Within two years his artwork was being exhibited at leading galleries, purchased for major collections and discussed by art scholars and critics.

James Cox 2003