Nancy Weekly Remembers Joe Orffeo
Friday, May 3, 2013
Denial is a state of mind induced when you don’t want to face the truth. I confess that I have been in denial since Joe Orffeo passed away. I started to write a memorial, but couldn’t finish it—because finishing it would mean it was true. Saturday, April 27th, Linda Orffeo, family, and friends participated in a “Celebration of Life” for Joe. The Colden Fire Company’s hall was filled with his artwork, photographs, U. S. Navy medals earned during World War II, and other mementos (including a postcard and touching story shared by Andres)—and people—lots of people. So it’s time to complete what I’ve started.
Several years ago I wrote:
Joseph Orffeo’s artwork frequently focuses on the presence of death as a subject. He eludes the sensation of fear, however, by his use of a vibrant palette to counterpoint dense black shapes. At times his imagery defies categorization, although there are often references to the figure, anatomical details, or ghostly human forms. “Death is a whole new experience,” Orffeo said. “Death is where all new things will happen. Life is only one segment of what we know. Death will be the great discovery.”
How differently his words sound today, in retrospect, while we try to fathom losing Joe. World War II had changed him, yet he was always the most gregarious person I had ever known. No one has ever measured up to his upbeat appreciation of life and indefatigable passion for painting. He loved to read and listen to music—and share his thoughts about what he liked, passing along tips for meaningful books and CDs, like soprano Dawn Upshaw’s moving recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Opus 36 (“Sorrowful Songs”) composed for Holocaust victims.
The Burchfield Penney Art Center is proud to own eleven works by Joseph Orffeo, dating from 1952 to 2001. The range of work reflects his lifelong interests in painting both landscape and figures abstractly and symbolically. He drew inspiration from the landscape he saw and the one he imagined, an interior landscape that reflects literary and musical richness. Frequently he focused on the yin and yang of existence, the dual presence of life and death. His colorful palette plays counterpoint to dense black shapes in his acrylic paintings. Light permeates many of recent works in watercolors.
A veteran of World War II, Joe preferred not to talk about the profoundly disturbing events he witnessed—but they haunted him and recurred in dreams and in shadowy paintings. With that same sensibility, he reacted to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 by painting something equivalent to Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: chaos surrounds the iconic skeletal remains of the World Trade Center while destruction burns indelible memories.
In contrast is Joe’s love of gardens, landscapes, weather, the cosmos, and a world of his imagination. Artworks touching these subjects reflected his vitality, his joy of life, his experiments with color and form. He seemed always to be in a state of perpetual motion—painting and connecting with people. What I truly miss is his companionship. That indescribable zest for life characterized his voice. How I miss it. That silence is what marks the end of an era. It was an era defined by certain friends—Joe and Walter Prochownik and David Pratt were dear friends and now they are all gone.
It is the end of an era of phone calls and emails—and even Skype—connecting with friends. People shared some of their stories on Saturday, so I know others cherished similar memories. I keep hearing his voice in my head (and I have it preserved on my answer machine.) I’d pick up the phone and hear, “Hey Nance! It’s Joe. How’re you doing?” We would share news about our families, news about the art work, and updates on our currently projects. Our conversations always ended the same way: “...I love you Nance. I love you too, Joe.”