Artist of the Pueblos
ON HIS OWN
Joe had always imagined himself attending college, and, naturally, assumed that his father would help him financially when the time came. The father had granted his oldest son, George, such an education. When Joe graduated from high school at age fifteen, in 1886, his father announced that instead of the anticipated college education, Joe would begin studies for the priesthood.1
The father's decision came as an astonishing revelation to Joe. Catholicism had played an exemplary role in their family life, and, certainly, other families had assigned children to the church.2 But Joe found his father's desire to make Joe the token priest in the family more than he could fathom. Hadn't his father seen Joe's artistic talent? His drive to become an artist? His many excursions into Manhattan to consult with the artists living in the Ridley Mansion?
The father remained unmoved by Joe's arguments. If Joe refused to become a priest, his father said, then he would not pay for any education. Joe could either settle for the religious life, or nothing. Joe believed that the education was rightfully his, and insisted that he was going to become an artist of the first order. His father refused to speak of the matter.3
The denial of an education solidified Joe's determination to become an artist. Paradoxically, his family's religious devotion and the Catholic Church had taught Joe both self-discipline and determination. For Joe, his father's refusal became a turning point, and he decided he would not turn back from the vision he had all of his life from the time he'd received the box of watercolors; he took the responsibility for the direction of his life. In addition, he began to question his own religious beliefs, his own philosophical view of life. The father's decision had changed his son's life. The breach had been made. Joe would never look back.
At the age of fifteen, Joseph Imhof gathered his artist's supplies, walked the easy distance to the Brooklyn Bridge, crossed the bridge to Manhattan and walked the few blocks to join the artists at the Ridley Mansion. Only his mother's pleas, before he had left, managed to persuade him to return at night to sleep in the family home, and to eat breakfast with his beloved mother.4
The artists at Ridley gave Joe the kind of home he had sought, and introduced him to the kinds of employment available to apprentice artists. An elderly engraver, an emigrant from Switzerland, paid the five dollars a month rent for Joe's first studio, an amount the young man would repay after he received his first pay check. The garret on the top floor, a small space below the slanting roofline that Joe called his "pigeon coup," was all the space he needed.5
From the Ridley Mansion at Beekman and William Streets, Joe walked one block west to Nassau Street and into the Currier and Ives retail shop at 115 Nassau.6 Here he contracted to draw the open-faced lettering for titles on Currier and Ives prints. He then received instruction on where to pick up his piece work in the lithographer's factory, a five-story building located one block north of the Ridley Mansion, at 33 Spruce. He learned he would letter directly on the stones used to make a print.7
Joe had already mastered the basic forms for all letters: using serifs, holding each letter on a horizontal line, drawing the uniform lengths of ascenders or descenders, achieving the right thickness for lines. Now he would learn to draw directly on the stone found at Solenhofen, near Pappenheim in Bavaria, regarded as the ideal lithography stone. No finer stone had been quarried. Its fine, compact grain permitted the stone to be split to achieve different thicknesses and sizes for printing. Before Joe ever saw the stone, it had been cut and sanded to flatten the surface. Then the lithography artist rubbed the stone smooth with a fine sand to give a rough enough surface to hold the greasy crayon used to draw upon the surface.8
Joe met other artists, lithographers and letterers who worked on the fourth floor of Currier and Ives. Because he worked on a piece-work basis, Joe would select his stone. Currier and Ives kept the stones within easy reach; the walls were lined with racks of stones on the upper three floors. Each stone was numbered on the end and ready for use. Stones containing art of the better-selling prints were kept for a while, and stones with less popular prints were ground by a man on the fourth floor who did nothing but grind and regrind stones. The third and fourth floors also housed the hand-operated presses.9