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ChasingArt By Catherine Baldau

F

ine art painter Joe Mayer lives and works according to a maxim that he gladly offers to others: “Drop your fear.” Mayer has taken risks, and relied on luck and favors in a fearless quest to make a living in a world that he loves—art, and especially abstract art. And in that world, he believes the only way to truly appreciate the art is to experience it without fear. “Abstract work is an acquired taste,” says Mayer. “You have to look at it for a while, and you have to be not afraid to look at it….All paintings are metaphors. They’re about something besides objects. They can be about an emotion, they can be about an experience, but they’re metaphorical.” A thread of Dickens runs through Mayer’s fearless beginnings. “When I graduated from high school my father gave me a suitcase and 10 bucks and said ‘good luck.’ ” That was the end of the support, right there. There was no going back and living in the basement. There was no hanging around. I had to find some way to build my dream.” Living across the street from the main gate to the Lorain Steel Company in Johnstown, PA, Joe watched men—and women during World War II—coming and going, three times a day, three shifts, and thought, “That’s not what I want from my life. So when my dad gave me the suitcase it was in a way a strange gift. It allowed me to go out and find a way to chase after what I wanted.”

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The chase began at the Richmond Professional Institute of the College of William and Mary, where Mayer trained as a commercial illustrator. He paid his way through college the hard-knocks way: school by day, waiter by night. Soon after graduating, he was working at an advertising agency in Washington, D.C., when a voice in his head whispered another calling: teaching. At the time, “Sherwood High School in Montgomery County was looking for an art teacher. I called for an interview with the principal and during our meeting he said, ‘You have no education credits, no fine arts credits. No one is going to hire you.’ “As I was leaving his office, he called me back. ‘Says here you were in the Marine Corps. What did you do in the Marine Corps?’ I told him I was a military policeman. As it turned out the last two art teachers were frequently in his office complaining of student disciplinary problems and he figured an exmarine MP could handle behavioral issues. So he hired me on the spot.” Aspiring to teach at the college level, Joe furthered his own education. “Getting a master’s degree with three kids at home wasn’t easy. I did much of my work between 10 at night and 2 in the morning.” Armed with an MFA from Catholic University, Mayer extended his teaching credits to the University of Maryland, West Virginia Wesleyan College, Montgomery College, Sweet Briar College and Prince Georges Community College, where he was Chairman of the Fine Arts Department. u

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