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Joe Gleason

 (1881 - 1959)
Joe Duncan Gleason was active/lived in California, New York.  Joe Gleason is known for marine, landscape and portrait painting.

Joe Gleason

Biography from the Archives of askART

Joe Duncan Gleason's modest beginnings hardly hinted at his illustrious life to come. Raised in Los Angeles, youngest of three children born to a woman who was emancipated enough to divorce her husband, in 1894 at the age of 14, he began working at the Union Engraving Company as an illustrator.  Over the next twenty years, thanks to scrapbooks kept by a doting mother, it is possible to keep close track of his growth and see how he developed the many different facets of his personality.

His main thrust was always art.  While supporting himself as an illustrator, he completed his abridged schooling and art education at art school in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago (school year 1902-3) and finally the Art Students League in New York (1903-4 and spring 1906).  In New York (1903-1914), he illustrated for such magazines as Leslie's Monthly, Ladies Home Journal, Forecast, Mother's Magazine and Hearst's Magazine.  The New York years were marked a boundless energy that opened him to many new experiences.  On at least two occasions he exchanged art work for free trips by train on the AT&SF in the summer of 1904 and the Northern Pacific in the summer of 1909.  In fall of 1905, he traveled to and worked briefly in Mexico, and in 1910 he made a summer tour of Europe by motorcycle and of North Africa on foot.

At the same time he pursued his several other interests.  He played a stringed instrument.  And, in the realm of athletics, he became a champion on the Roman flying rings, winning, each year between 1907 and 1923 (with a break at 1914-1918 when he was in Los Angeles and couldn't compete) the American Amateur Athletic Association national championship.  A sidelight of this skill were his acrobatics performances on the live stage.  On top of everything, he kept his own yacht, a 36 foot yawl and was a frequent sailor on Long Island Sound.

In the early teens, like many illustrators, Gleason felt the yen to become a fine arts painter.  Rejected from service in World War I because of poor eyesight, he returned to Los Angeles where he focused on making impressionist style landscapes of the area's valleys and hills, traveling to remote places in a specially converted 1915 Hupmobile.  His seascapes, unique in their inclusion of people, were painted at nearby Laguna Beach. Having come from the technically demanding field of illustration, he did landscapes that exhibit greater pictorial qualities than much of the local output, and he was honored with several one man shows at local commercial galleries.

In a unique blend of interests, he associated himself with the Los Angeles Athletic Club on several levels.  He made many illustrations for the Club's magazine, Mercury (as well as for other Los Angeles publications, such as Pacific Mutual News, and Touring Topics) and kept up an almost continuous changing display of his paintings in the club headquarters.  Under the Club's affiliation, he competed in local gymnastic competitions and performed hand balancing acts for charity events.  While the war raged, he donated more than 50 gymnastics performances to the local Red Cross fund raisers and to entertain soldiers.  Gleason capped his Los Angeles residence with his marriage in late June 1919 to Dorothy Ferguson, an accomplished pianist and music teacher who also shared his love of sailing.  This ushered in a new period in his life.  Gleason and his wife moved to New York where he returned to magazine illustration.  He kept up his interest in fine arts by painting portraits, specializing in child studies, and began to develop what was to become his specialty: marine paintings.  Even from the earliest years, these varied widely from four masted sailing ships to private yachts and even to modern Navy ships.

For research purposes, he traveled frequently to New Bedford, and Fairhaven, Massachusetts, where some of the windjammers and whaling ships remained as museum displays.  He began to author articles on yachting and on California history, which he illustrated with his own art work.  In 1922 he published Windjammers, a limited edition book of original etchings of sailing ships.  He also made elaborate ship models.  A couple of years before the death of his mother on July 14, 1925, Gleason began building a studio at the home place on Fourth Street, Los Angeles.  Newspaper notices state that his mother wanted him to come back to Los Angeles, and indeed, about 1924 Joe and his wife returned permanently there.

The artist settled, however, in San Pedro, the city's harbor to the south, where, from his hillside studio, he had a panoramic view of all the ships coming and going. Gleason's life continued to be one of variety.  In the mid 1920s, he did his first work for the motion picture studios when he assisted the director of Cecil B. DeMille's movie Yankee Clipper with the authenticity of everything in the movie pertaining to the ships.  He was still the indefatagable traveler.  A summer/fall 1928 trip took him back to New England for a stay in the old sailing port of Fairhaven, with visits to Salem and Gloucester.  And, in the early summer of 1929, through his friendship with Donald Douglas, head of Los Angeles's Douglas Aircraft, he and his wife had the rare privilege of flying across country in a special tri motored plane - flying time 22 hours and 55 minutes with two overnight stops and a change of pilots in St. Louis. At one point, he was even allowed to hold the controls.  After a week in New York, he and his wife returned to Los Angeles on a steamship from New Orleans via the Panama Canal.  His friendships with wealthy people made him a frequent guest aboard their yachts.

While art was always Gleason's main interest, beginning in the 1930s his buoyant, outgoing personality made him popular as an after dinner speaker, engendering a steady stream of invitations to appear before Chambers of Commerce, women's clubs, art clubs, high schools, etc.  Some talks addressed the romance of sailing while others were lecture demonstrations in which he would discuss sailing ships or relate anecdotes of places he traveled while at the same time complete a pencil sketch or a painting in view of the audience.  On fund raising occasions, the painting was raffled off.  Sometimes the program included musical selections played by his wife, an accomplished pianist.  In the financially difficult 1930s, Gleason's hard work and many talents seem to have paid off.  At the rock bottom of the Depression, in June 1932, he was financially able to move from a studio in the rural hillside suburb of La Canada to the wealthier and closer-in area of Los Feliz Hills, adjacent to Hollywood, where he remained until his death.

Obviously, his specialty of ship painting made him unique.  He obtained some income from painting portraits of private yachts based in San Pedro.  In 1934, he taught art at his studio.   He was a continual prize and award winner at the many local competitive exhibitions to which he indefatigably sent canvases.  And, his talent at illustration made him invaluable to the area's motion picture studios, who used artists to give first visual form to a script.  For the whole of 1938 he was employed by Warner Brothers working on such films as Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Dodge City.  Between 1939 and 1941 he worked for MGM for whom he designed the Yearling, and from the beginning of 1943 to the middle of 1944 he was back at Warner Bros. making continuity sketches for Destination Tokyo, This is the Army, Hollywood Canteen, and The Very Thought of You.  Other movies with which he was involved include Robin Hood and Petrified Forest.

During WWII, like many artists who could not serve in the armed forces for one reason or another, he did his part in other ways.  He joined the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary where his background experience qualified him to teach seamanship and to patrol the harbor with his own sloop, the Dorothy. (He remained with the Auxiliary to the end of his life, holding various officerships and teaching night classes on safety at sea and other topics.)  He was also captain in control of the light switch for his residential area, in case the city needed to be blacked out.  His war poster was one of four chosen by Artists for Victory for reproduction as labels promoting purchase of bonds and stamps.  He painted several pictures of U. S. Navy ships showing them as powerful and aggressive. And, he visited hospitals where servicemen were recuperating and drew portraits of the soldiers to boost their morale.  At times his wife joined him and played the piano.

After the war, Gleason continued to paint and to sell ship paintings, but his scrapbook is more filled with notices on his lectures and his activities as an officer with several art clubs.  To his ever popular lectures on ships during the age of sail he added his 1948 trip to Mexico.  For Californians, Mexico's natural rural beauty untouched by the "advances" of civilization, had been a lure since the late 1920s, but turned into a "must" destination for artists in the 1930s and 1940s.  Gleason illustrated his talk with some of the new Kodachrome slides he took in Mexico City, Veracruz, Tamazunchole and Taxco.  Other lectures covered his activities as an artist for the motion picture studios.

He was honored a number of times when local high schools, continuing a tradition begun by Gardena High School where the senior class gifted a painting to the school, purchased his works from annual competitive exhibits they held: Gardena H. S. (1935), Hoover H. S. (1935), Clearwater H. S. (1948), Mira Costa H. S. (1952), and Dana Jr. H. S. (1955).  On the club scene, he served as an officer with several art clubs, the most longstanding of which was Artists of the Southwest (1948-1952, 1953-56+) As president, as well as Chairman of the Co-Ordinating Committee for Traditional Art (an umbrella organization representing several LA area conservative arts clubs), in the late 1940s and early 1950s he became one of the main spokes persons against modernism.  At the time, modernism (its most outre form being Abstract Expressionism) was revolutionizing the art world, upsetting the status quo, shouldering talented realists like Gleason out of competitive exhibitions.  Like many, he believed modern art was decadent, anarchistic, and a tool of Communism. Being of a convivial personality, he was a natural choice for interview.  He spoke before various luncheon meetings, in 1949 on Hollywood Talks it Over on the new medium of television, and in 1950 on KFI radio.  In the yachting realm, he remained active with the California Yacht Club, the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, as well as the U. S. Power Squadrons, making recreational voyages with fellow yachtsmen up and down the coast to destinations like Catalina, Ensenada, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.  At least twice he crewed and once was a guest on one of the yachts competing in the Newport-Ensenada 135 mile race for sailboats (1950, 1951, 1952).

His book, Islands of California (1950) and the expanded Islands and Ports of California (1958) proved helpful for Pacific Coast yachtsmen giving not only a history of the various offshore islands but also information about sailing conditions in and around them, including places for safe anchorage, etc.  In 1953 he joined his voice to those who lobbied to make the west end of the private island of Catalina into a state park, and in 1954 he became a member of the state-wide California Marine Parks and Harbors lobby fighting for more small boat harbors and marine parks in California.

Looking at any art work created by Gleason, one has no doubt that he was a highly accomplished artist.  Because of the thorough scrapbooks kept by his mother and then his wife it is possible to see his growth from his first tentative illustrating efforts at the age of 14 through his powerful and fully developed illustrations of the early twentieth century, to his post-1914 easel works.  Like other illustrators who took up the fine arts, he transferred his ability to paint objects and figures to the medium making him more accomplished than the average landscapist.  Moreover, he excelled at the very difficult subject of ships whose curved hulls and masses of detailed rigging make them some of the most challenging objects to render with correct perspective.  Through decades when landscape and Regionalist figure paintings were the dominant themes, he steadfastly painted square riggers, whaling ships, private yachts, and the new and mighty, metal sided U. S. Naval ships.  He saw the sea as masculine, and his craving to do something powerful compelled him to paint it.

To date the family knows the names of almost 800 paintings that he completed, but the present locations of most of them are unknown. Almost as soon as he finished one it was purchased and out of the studio.

Robert Grossman

Biography from the Archives of askART
Joe Gleason was a native of California, born in Watsonville, in 1881.  He was known for his landscape and marine paintings of San Pedro Harbor on the California coast.  He also wrote and illustrated several books on California maritime history and worked for the scenic art department at Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Warner Brothers studios.

Gleason was raised in Los Angeles, California, and was working for the Union Engraving Company when he was only fourteen years old.  He was skilled at drawing and sketching and took his first art training at the University of Southern California as a pupil of Lees Judson. Gleason then moved north to San Francisco to attend the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art.  While going to school he worked for the Sunset Engraving Company as a commercial artist. 

He studied in Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1900 to 1901, took lessons from Frank DuMond at the Art Students League in New York City.  He supported himself as a commercial artist.

He stayed in New York for ten years before returning to Los Angeles in 1910.  He exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1924), the Arizona State Fair (1932), the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1945) and the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939).  He painted murals in the Hotel Clark and for Gardena High School (Los Angeles).

When he wasn't pursuing a career in art, Gleason was training as a championship gymnast.  He won the International Championships eleven times on the Rings.  Gleason was also an author and illustrator of two books he wrote about the California coast.  Later in life he worked for the MGM and Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles.

Gleason died in Glendale, California on March 9, 1959.

Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940

Biography from Roger King Fine Art
Joe Duncan Gleason (1881-1959) was born in Watsonville, California and studied at the University of Southern California with Lees Judson. He attended the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, and studied with Frank DuMond at the Art Students' League.

In New York he worked as a magazine illustrator; the proceeds were sufficient to enable him to travel in Mexico, Europe, and North Africa. After returning to California, Gleason painted Impressionist-style landscapes around Laguna Beach and had several successful solo exhibits at local galleries. Gleason was an accomplished athlete on the Roman "flying rings," winning the Amateur Athletic Association's National Championships from 1907 to 1923.

After his marriage in 1919, Gleason returned to New York where he made illustrations and painted portraits. He began to focus on marine painting, traveling to New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts to study windjammers and whaling ships. He made detailed ship models and in 1922 published a limited-edition book of original etchings of sailing ships.

In 1924 he moved to San Pedro, California and by the mid-1920s was working at movie studios, authenticating, illustrating, and making visuals for scripts for MGM and Warner Brothers. His background in illustration was an asset in assignments calling for the depiction of square riggers, whaling ships, and U.S. Navy metal-sided ships. Gleason was active as an art teacher and became a popular after-dinner speaker, where he spoke on subjects ranging from sailing to painting to television. He received many awards at competitive exhibitions.

He became increasingly involved with art clubs and as a spokesman against modernism in art, which he viewed with suspicion. Active in the California Yacht Club, Gleason crewed on a few occasions in the Newport-Ensenada races. He was also active in the U.S. Power Squadrons and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and actively lobbied for California state marine parks, including privately-owned Catalina Island.

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About  Joe Gleason

Born:  1881 - Watsonville, California
Died:   1959 - Glendale, California
Known for:  marine, landscape and portrait painting

Essays referring to
Joe Gleason

The California Art Club