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 Charles Kenneth Sibley  (1921 - 2005)

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Lived/Active: Virginia/West Virginia      Known for: mod figure, landscape, harbors

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Ad Code: 3
Charles Kenneth Sibley
from Auction House Records.
Shrimp House
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is the Obituary of the artist, courtesy of Sandy Block

By TERESA ANNAS, The Virginian-Pilot  (Hampton Roads, Virginia)
© August 14, 2005

PORTSMOUTH — Charles Sibley, regarded as this region’s most important artist for the past half-century, died of heart failure Saturday at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center. He was 83.

Sibley arrived in Hampton Roads in 1955, having exhibited in top New York museums alongside artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Willem de Kooning.  Here, he almost single-handedly shaped Old Dominion University’s art department, where thousands of students aspired to his high standards and found inspiration in his expressive paintings. From those early days, his work remained in demand among the region’s more sophisticated – and monied – collectors.

His personality was noteworthy, too. He could be acid-tongued, yet self-effacing and generous.

“He was world-class,” said Norfolk painter Beverly Furman, who studied early on with Sibley. “If he hadn’t had to teach, he could’ve been a great artist. The great artist everybody has in their mind that they want to be.”

Sibley had been suffering for many years from a hereditary blood disease called sideroblastic anemia. That and other maladies did not slow his output much in the years following his early retirement in 1980, when he finally was able to devote all of his time to painting.

Sixteen years later, Sibley examined his own aging figure for a self-portrait.

“The multiple wrinkles, the bulging belly. That’s what I am,” he said then, grinning mischievously as he looked at the painting.

“I’m going to be 75 soon,” he continued. “I used to think if I made it to 75, I’d be willing to die. And now I realize the only thing that will satisfy any of us is immortality, absolutely, with the gods.”

Sibley’s legacy can be seen in the local arts scene, in his many students who still paint and exhibit, in the pre-Columbian and African art collections he amassed and, most especially, in his own work.

Throughout his career, Sibley toggled between figurative work and abstraction.  His large-scale abstract canvases were heavily textured with rich, dark tones and bold introductions of unexpected hues such as lavender, tangerine or magenta.

He traveled over the years to Africa, Europe and South America and admired and purchased the art of those cultures. Some of his paintings were inspired by those encounters.

Sibley was young and robust when he began painting sad figures with an empathetic eye.

His 1981 Speedwalker shows an old man standing with a walker.  The setting is like a stage – a man, engulfed in darkness, stares into a blinding white light. Pondering that work in 1996, Sibley said, “There’s a deep sadness to being alone in this world, and you can get very close to that.

“Friends are not really friends – they’re mainly acquaintances.  People you can lean on and trust are not that many in a life span.  Not even your own family.”

Speedwalker was exhibited in 1981 at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, as part of a survey of his work.  Also displayed was his 1977 Preparation, one of two works owned by the Chrysler.  That piece shows an elderly woman sitting in a salon and looking isolated under a hair dryer.

“To me, one of the highest aims is to create emotion,” Sibley once said. “Usually good art has within it something which is quite individual. And if it’s very much a reflection of the artist’s thought, then it disturbs the person who doesn’t want to think, and who wants decoration.”

To pad his professor’s wages, Sibley painted both for the market and for himself.  He wanted enough money to travel, to live in a home that suited him and to buy antiques and art.  He described his more decorative output – often, atmospheric landscapes without social commentary – as “pleasant, professional painting.”

Early on, he lived on a woodsy plot in Virginia Beach, then in the 1970s bought an 1835 home in Olde Towne Portsmouth. Upon retirement, he built a studio and home in the Simonsdale neighborhood of Portsmouth on property adjacent to the home of old friends.

He was a loner, but maintained long relationships with several local artists, especially Robert Vick, with whom he traveled, but also Shaumin Liu, Ken Daley, Edna Sara Lazaron and Norman Goodwin.

“I can’t think of anyone who has had more of an impact on the community, in terms of visual arts,” said Daley, a Yale grad who was hired by Sibley in 1965.  Daley chaired ODU’s art department for 15 years and is a printmaker and installation artist who exhibits nationally.

“So much of what Charles did was based on established imagery by great masters,” said Goodwin, who studied with him starting in 1962.  Sibley’s only painting on war, his 1995 Sarajevo, depicts a pile of nude corpses surveyed by vultures.  Goodwin said that piece, which won best in show in a 1996 competition at the Chrysler, was inspired by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya.

Over the years, Sibley listed Goya, German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann and Honore Daumier, a French painter who sympathetically portrayed the underprivileged, as among his influences.

“He was sort of an American Goya,” said Donald Lewis Jr., a Virginia Beach painter who ran the now-defunct Auslew Galleries with his father.  Auslew handled Sibley’s work off and on from the 1960s until the late 1980s.  “He painted midgets and deformed people. I think he saw a lot of humanity in these people. He was a pathos kind of guy.”

Lewis witnessed his facility.  In the 1980s, he and a few other local artists painted outdoors with Sibley at rural sites in Suffolk and Portsmouth.

“He’d be blocking in the tones while I was still setting up my easel,” Lewis recalled.  “He’d produce a really nice watercolor sketch in probably two hours.  He’d work continuously, while talking about philosophy and art.”

Sibley wasn’t a great fan of recent American art.  “His ideology was very much grounded in that long figurative tradition from the Renaissance through the 19th century and into early modernism,” Daley said.  “He really found his joy in that loose, painterly quality.”

He didn’t feel he had to be of his time.  “I think it’s more important to try and be a person of quality and excellence,” he once said.  “Look over your shoulder at the past, and you’ll have an easier chance to see what is mediocre and what is excellent.”

Sibley was born on Dec. 20, 1921, in Huntington, W.Va., to a man who sold life insurance and stoked fires for locomotives and a woman who had worked in a bakery.  He had two sisters.

“We were awfully poor,” Sibley recalled. Yet his home was warm and loving.

As a child, he was drawn to art, and by age 12, he could recognize artists’ works by style. A prodigy, he began studying commercial art at Ohio State University at age 15, graduating four years later.

During World War II, he served in the Navy as a communications officer on a tanker. For an expressive outlet, he pilfered paint from the boatswain’s locker.  When the war ended, he landed a commercial art job in Chicago with Marshall Field’s, a department store.  But his father soon became ill with lung cancer, and Sibley took a leave to go home.

He spent months watching over his dad and painting pictures in the garage for emotional release. That’s when painting became his passion.  “I discovered I didn’t want to go back to commercial art.”

The GI Bill enabled him to continue his schooling, so he went after a master’s degree from Columbia University, then a second advanced degree from Iowa State.

Sibley found a teaching job at Duke University, where he began exhibiting in national shows and immediately won four top awards.  A New York gallery took on his work.

That year, in 1948, he received a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant and used that money to live and paint for two years on remote Portsmouth Island, south of Ocracoke on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  He loved it so much he stayed on a third year, without funds.

He bought an old schoolhouse on the island for his home and studio, and spent half his day painting and the rest of his time fishing, hunting, growing vegetables and helping out the islanders.

“I hated to leave there,” he told a reporter in 1980. “It was a place of great peace and tranquility.”

His paintings of life on the island, which he continued to visit for another 15 years, furthered his reputation.  One canvas was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  On the basis of that series, he was invited to show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Texas State tracked him down, via a telegram on a mail boat, to offer him a job.  He bit, but the Texas university was too big for his taste.  He stayed a couple of years, then sent letters out to mid-Atlantic colleges without art departments.

A Norfolk school that responded seemed just right. The Division of the College of William and Mary and Virginia Tech, later ODU, had offered art classes from the 1940s until the early 1950s, led by an artist named Paula Mallery.  When Sibley arrived, all that remained of that program was a dozen easels.

For three years, he taught all the courses, from art history to ceramics.  Then he began adding a faculty of bright, young artists from top schools such as Yale.

By 1968, he was able to resign the chairman position and resume teaching. The art department he started now has 30 instructors, 400-plus students and a joint graduate program with Norfolk State University.

“He had a way of latching on to what a student was about, of getting at the kernel of what the student was trying to create,” said Norfolk artist Fay Zetlin in 1980.  The late artist studied under Sibley.  “There was never any of this paint-like-me approach. That would be too arrogant for Charles.”

None of Sibley’s students became famous, Daley said, but many have taught art in local schools and gone on to be prominent artists here and in other cities. By 1962, Sibley had launched an “art boom,” and he’s still considered the father of the local visual arts community.

Furman, a painter who rents a studio at Norfolk’s d’Art Center, began taking art courses at the school around 1960.  “We called him Papa.  He always acted like an old man, even when he was young.

“His work influenced my life and my work. My whole goal was to be able to paint like him. So I sort of launched off on my own and came up with some variations of that. It has something to do with weaving colors together and mixing colors in a certain way and always letting a brush stroke show on the painting.

“He never really taught me anything, one on one.  I would look at his paintings and learn.  And I still do.”

She took his watercolor class, but after that, enrolled in other teachers’ courses. “I couldn’t be in his class.”  Sibley’s critiques could be harsh.  “He thought he was being funny. But I would just run out of the room and cry. I just couldn’t take it."

“He was mean. He was acid. He was hilarious.”

Goodwin recalled that “When you did something good, he gave you great praise.  When you did something dreadful, he would say, 'Have you ever thought about crocheting or needlework?’

“He would say that because he wanted them to get angry.  And in their anger, they could become determined.  And he believed determination was part of being an artist.”

He had a personality like that of artist Pablo Picasso, Furman said.  “When you’re that much of a genius, your personal skills suffer.  But you forgave him for it because he was such a brilliant painter.”

Later, Sibley regretted his behavior.  “It’s easy, if you have that wicked tongue, to let it go. I don’t think it would have hurt me to have been a little kinder.”

Early in Sibley’s career, New York critics raved about the “poetry of spirit in painter Charles Sibley’s meditative figures,” and admired how he “isolates human form so that its feeling and meaning count immeasurably more.”

But when Janet Nessler closed her gallery in the early 1970s, Sibley was without a New York venue.

“I went around.  Everybody was polite. Nobody was the least interested.”

The art world had changed, and Sibley’s painterly figure work was no longer in vogue.

He contented himself to be an important regional painter with a devoted following. Marc and Connie Jacobson of Norfolk own six large figurative paintings by Sibley, and loaned them to the Chrysler for a 1999 show.

“We just think he’s a tremendous talent,” Connie Jacobson said.  “He’s really enriched our lives.”

Sibley’s last gathering with local artists and art friends was five years ago at the Portsmouth home of Richard Singletary, an aficionado who purchased Sibley’s African art collection. Singletary was anxious to show off Sibley’s collection of 100 or so pieces and honor the artist.

He had let Singletary buy the works over several years, often charging less than market value and occasionally giving him a piece.  Singletary finished paying Sibley in the late 1990s, but continued to visit him.

Sibley was still painting in late spring, mostly colorful abstracts, Singletary said.  He’d been in and out of Maryview Medical Center since winter, Liu said, but still tried to paint whenever he could.

If he was tough on his students, Sibley was more brutal regarding his own work.

“I have no silly, egotistical ideas of being an artist of any importance in the record of the future,” Sibley said. “I enjoy painting, and I think I’m a professional artist. And there are few enough professional artists around. But that’s about as much as I can say for myself.

“I wish that I were maybe a little less realistic about myself. I think it makes you happier.

“And yet, I get so much pleasure from painting. I get on a project, and if it’s a genuine opportunity for some expression, I get very enthused and very happy and it just carries me away.”

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted July 2005, is from Ann Ayer, Assistant Curator and Registrar, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. She credits exhibition catalogs dated 1981 and 1983.

Charles Sibley holds a BA from Ohio State University (Columbus), a MA from Columbia University (New York, NY), a MFA from the State University of Iowa (Iowa City) and has taught at Duke University (Durham, NC) and the University of Texas.

In 1954 Mr. Sibley went to the Norfolk Division, College of William and Mary (now Old Dominion University) to establish its Art Department. He was chairman of that department from 1955 to 1970 and retired from teaching in 1980. In October 1974,the Board of Visitors designated him an eminent scholar, and in April 1980 he was awarded the title Professor Emeritus of Art in consideration of his prominent career and the fact that he "almost single-handedly put Old Dominion University on the map in visual arts.

The last information I have is that he now resides in Portsmouth, Virginia, where he devotes his time to painting.

Mr. Sibley is represented in permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rochester Memorial Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Chrysler Museum (Norfolk, VA), Winston-Salem Museum, Harvard University Collection, Illinois Wesleyan University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

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