Joel Sheesley, among other things, is a fiction writer’s painter. With his lucid technical mastery and wonderfully strange sense of composition, he paints canvases that draw out the profound weirdness of the everyday. His eye is generous; his portraits of suburbanites are made with a deadly-clear perception but also a full and loving sympathy. The warm, funny compositions throw people’s frailties as well as their dignity into high relief. Sheesley arranges scenes that are slightly mysterious but full of emotional heft. Like the best short-story writers, he gives you exactly enough information to wrench you, and no more. Indeed, in its crystallization of both the beauty and melancholy of suburban life, his work is a visual reply to the fiction of John Cheever. If you happen to live in a middle-class American suburb, spending time with these paintings will give you new eyes for the people around you. It might even make you a better neighbor.
After making paintings for a number of years that had a figurative and narrative basis I now find myself making paintings that explore aspects of perception. Perception seems to incorporate both culture and nature at once. We look “out” at nature but perceive what we see in cultural terms. Maps are concrete examples of this experience. They combine a grasping for truth about the natural world with a representation of it that simultaneously represents the culture that produced the map. Our apprehension of nature is in a sense concealed under our culture.
So, I am interested in the kind of poetry that may be drawn out of this realization about perception; that it reveals and conceals at the same time. I find myself looking at synthetic products for their reflection of natural qualities, and at the traces of natural processes for their suggestion of man-made constructions. At moments I lose all sense of differentiation between human and natural forces and arrive at a kind of blissful unity of design in all things. But then I sense that this blissful design is also a mask hiding naked greed and opportunism; forces whose moral edge cuts into Edenic paradise.
I grew up in rural Upstate New York, and got my BFA at Syracuse University School of Art. In 1972 I married Joan and we went out to Denver Colorado where I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Denver. In 1974 I was given a teaching job at Wheaton College. We moved to the Midwest and have lived near Chicago ever since. I’ve almost figured out how to live in suburbia. We have three grown sons who return more love and respect to us than we ever imagined might come our way.