Artist Profile: Joe Diggs
The complexities of race in America perplex, anger and sometimes even amuse Osterville painter Joe Diggs. “I want to be known simply as a painter,” Diggs says. “Not a black painter, but just a painter.”
His quote stems from the fact that many artists of color feel that white society expects them to be spokespersons for their entire race. “For example, just because I’m black they expect to see images of Malcolm X, that sort of thing,” he says. “That’s like expecting a white artist to only paint pictures of George Washington.”
Quite expectedly, these complexities can’t help but make appearances in Diggs’ rich multi-layered, multi-textured paintings—but still, what really interests Diggs is his family, exploring where he came from and how he got to where he is today. His family is rooted in Osterville. An enclave of houses and cabins tucked down a gravel road and overlooking Micah’s Pond belonged to his grandfather, then his father, and now Diggs. It’s where he still lives and works, where he takes care of his elderly mother. Joe’s Twin Villa, the famous, now defunct bar Joe’s family owned and ran beginning during the Depression, was a half-mile away on Old Mill Road.
Diggs has said that painting for him is remembering, so he paints his family. “Race Relations” shows his father in uniform, “Hobbled Dreams” and “Uncle Mitch” depict an uncle who was a Tuskegee Airman, and his most recent work is a series on Joe’s Twin Villa that will be exhibited in a solo show in August at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. The figures of his paintings are depicted lovingly—and here’s where the complexity of race relations in America rise up—but the figures also are seen with the scars worn by many African Americans in our society. Looking at one of Diggs’ paintings means looking through layers that obscure the subject. Figures tentatively emerge from shadows, or try to blend into the background or hide behind veils and drips of paint. “The basis of art is in its foundation,” Diggs says. “I believe in abstraction, how the painting can be taken somewhere else.”
“For example, just because I’m black they expect to see images of Malcolm X, that sort of thing. . . That’s like expecting a white artist to only paint pictures of George Washington.”
Diggs says he enjoys the physical act of painting. He gets excited pushing and pulling and dragging material over and across the canvas. “It’s my place to make art,” he says. “I’ve got my ideas and I have this need to articulate them on the canvas.” He employs thick gobs of oil paint and runny acrylic, paper, paste, wax, and gold leaf. He even has used the floor mats in his studio as stencils to make impressions. The marks of complexity, even conflict, mar the surfaces of his paintings. Brushstrokes are apparent, scrapes and scratches mutilate the paint.
But black and white are not just colors, there’s no denying it, and race is not lost on Diggs, the artist. See his painting “Proud 2b American Black and White” if you don’t believe it. Things are not black and white in Diggs’ work, and in this painting all of the elements, including the flag, have broken apart, lying in a pile we’re looking down on, and it seems it’s up to the viewer to put it all back together.