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Timothy Joe's first plein air painting was of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which has an important role in his Black heritage.

A Story on Canvas: Huntsville artist to create plein air paintings during Festival of the Cranes

DECATUR – Timothy Joe, a third-generation angus cattle farmer and lifelong artist who fell in love with painting nature scenes thanks to Bob Ross, will combine his two passions of nature and art during Decatur’s Festival of the Cranes this weekend.

Toting his backpack filled with a tripod, pochade box, journal and gouache paints, Joe will travel around Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge creating plein air painted outdoors artwork on Saturday and Sunday.

“I’ll be out there spreading the good news about art and nature,” the 39-year-old Huntsville resident and Greensboro native said. “At Festival of Cranes, I will get to showcase my love of art and nature and, hopefully, inspire others to create.”

For Joe, the inspiration to create began at 4 years old when his mother brought home paper grocery bags and a box of crayons and encouraged him to draw.

On Saturday afternoons, Joe watched “Joy of Painting with Bob Ross” on Alabama Public Television.

“My interest in art really took off because we had no cable. We had three channels and one of them was APT. Every Saturday at 2:30, Bob Ross would come on. Once I saw him, it was over. I knew this was what I wanted to be doing,” Joe said.

After painting along with Bob Ross for more than a decade, Joe, then a college student at University of Alabama in Huntsville studying engineering, tired of the formulaic “happy little trees.” At Barnes & Noble, he found plein air magazines. The loose and painterly strokes in the non-hyper-realistic artwork appealed to Joe.

“I was brought up thinking that if you do a painting and it doesn’t look like an exact copy, then you failed. I would put all this pressure on myself to make it look as realistic as I could,” Joe said. “When I saw the paintings in the magazines, it looked like the artists were having fun. I wanted that. That’s when my eyes opened up to this whole new world of art.”

To find his style of art, Joe visited local artists around Huntsville and spent time at Lowe Mill. He quizzed the artists, asking them how they knew what they liked to paint and why they liked to paint certain images.

After five years, Joe created an artist statement.

“The (reason) I like to paint the way I do is because I love history and old things. I’m a history buff and try to capture the past in my art,” Joe said. “Art is my ministry. It is my calling to see beauty in common places and capture the scene. I paint to show my appreciation of what God created. My purpose is to remind people of the beauty around them.”

Paintings tell stories

Joe’s first solo art exhibit — an exhibit he described as “horrible” — cemented his artistic mission and purpose.

He traveled three hours from Huntsville to Demopolis for the solo exhibit, where he sold one piece for $10. Despite the poor results, Joe was determined to take something positive away from the experience.

“I was packing up my gear when I saw an old building next to the railroad tracks. I knew I wanted to paint it, but I knew I couldn’t do it justice unless I knew more about it,” Joe said. “I realized that the more history I know about a place, the better the painting is and the better I am at capturing the mood.”

Since that experience in 2015, Joe has wandered through Alabama’s backroads painting old churches, homes, barns, silos and nature.

Each painting carries a story.

For his first plein air painting, Joe painted the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which has an important role in his Black heritage. He was brought to tears thinking about the civil rights activists beaten there on Bloody Sunday.

He painted the Benevolent Society in Fairhope, which took up collections to assist freed slaves and pay for funerals.

And he captured St. Andrew’s Church near Demopolis, which, along with the baptistry inside the church, was built in 1855 by slaves.

Joe described his mission of painting these historic sites as a stewardship.

“It’s been put on me to paint these sites before they are gone. If I don’t do it, who else will,” Joe said.

Nature’s beauty

Along with historic places, Joe focuses on painting nature scenes. His love of nature stems from growing up on Joe Farm — the 200-acre cattle farm run by his father and once operated by his grandfather. In his family for over 100 years, the land carries a rich history.

“The Ku Klux Klan burnt my granddaddy’s house to the ground, hoping to force him from the land. But they didn’t count on him having insurance,” Joe said. “My dad got me and my siblings into farming, mostly against our will as children. Now that I have my own kids, though, I see how special having this land is. We’ve got to take care of it.”

The Joe family hosts tours of the farm for birdwatchers — who come to see the swallow-tailed kite, bald eagles, wood storks, egrets and hawks — and plein air artists.

“My art is not quickly understood sometimes. I’ve been asked, ‘You’re a Black man, why don’t you paint Black art?’ My art is Black, but not the typical Afro-centric style. When I tried to go in that direction, it felt like I was wearing a jacket three sizes too small. My art is here to remind you how beautiful nature is. My signature is my signature. Just ’cause I don’t write like you do doesn’t make mine wrong,” Joe said.

For Festival of the Cranes, Joe, who works with gouache, acrylic, oil, charcoal, graphite, acrylic and soft pastels, hopes to paint a whooping crane on site.

Joe’s brother, Christopher Joe, also will participate in Festival of the Cranes. He will lead a Birding 101 walk for beginning birders on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and will talk about his interest in birding, agriculture and videos during a session on Saturday at 10 a.m. Both events will take place at Wheeler.

Other art experiences connected with Festival of the Cranes:

• Old State Bank: High school art show, Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon. Admission is free. The exhibit will remain on display through the end of February.

• Alabama Center for the Arts: Festival of the Cranes art exhibit featuring art by students, alumni, faculty and staff of Calhoun Community College and Athens State University, Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The exhibit, which features 31 pieces of art created by 20 artists, will remain on display through Feb. 21. Admission is free. Special activities for Festival of the Cranes on Saturday include thumbprint critters workshop for children, 10 a.m.-noon, and duck stamp workshop for kindergartners to high school seniors, 3 p.m.

• Carnegie Visual Arts Center: Family-friendly art workshop with artists Dariana Dervis and Chiharu Roach at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Admission is free. Register at carnegiearts.org.

• Decatur Public Library: Face painting and crane-themed crafts for children on Saturday, 3-5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.

One-on-One with Timothy Joe

Question: What captures your attention when looking for something to paint?

Answer: I love nature and history and showing the effect of time. I love old buildings that were brand new at one point, but now have boards falling off. Some folks may say it’s ugly. I see it as beautiful because it stood the test of time. Just think about how many storms and hot days these buildings have gone through.

Q: Do you paint on site or take photographs of an image?

A: I prefer to paint on site, because the camera can’t capture all the colors you can see. But that isn’t always possible. A lot of the places I find are in backwoods places and I worry. You never know what people will think when they see a Black man by the side of the road. In those places, I take a picture while in the car. I call them drive-bys.

Q: Did you have a Black artist to look up to growing up?

A: I didn’t have anyone to guide me because I lived out in the middle of nowhere with no art curriculum at school. There was one young Black artist I was going to take classes from. Being a young kid and seeing someone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do was amazing. But, several weeks before the classes, he died in a car accident. That put me on the trajectory of wanting to one day become an art teacher.

Q: Have you taught any classes?

A: I have taught with Alabama Audubon and, when the pandemic happened, I started Zoom classes. I was part of the International Nature Journaling Week. More than 90 people all over the planet watched me paint a picture of a bumblebee. I think it’s important for people to see me, a Black man, doing something positive. I’m just trying to put my little bit of joy out in the world in the midst of so much suffering. I see art as being able to draw people together and help us heal.

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