Joseph Sleep was born at sea “somewhere between England and Canada”, and the year is also not quite clear – could be 1914, 1916 or 1918 but the 1914 date of birth is generally accepted.
Joe would describe himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He held a great many jobs in his early youth mainly as a fisherman, and then worked throughout most of his adult like as a “carney” for the Halifax based, traveling circus Bill Lynch Shows, In 1973 he had heart trouble and spent time convalescing at the Halifax Infirmary. It was at the hospital that the nursing staff provided Joe with paper and supplies to draw posters, and this is what started him on his career as a painter. He was not eligible for an old age pension due to an unsympathetic bureaucracy’s reaction to his lack of an official birth certificate so he came to depend on selling his pictures as his sole source of income.
In the catalogue for his 1981 retrospective exhibit at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, guest curator Bruce Ferguson states
“For Joe Sleep painting was not an aesthetic preoccupation, but one largely determined by public demand and distribution as his studio sign proudly demonstrates. By relying entirely on popular image sources and bright colours for immediate impact in the studio sign and in his Xeroxed handbills advertising his wares, he effectively attracted his clientele. Importantly his prior marginal social status was raised considerably by this form of exchange, which would ordinarily be denied to a person of his background and limited education. By servicing the public with delightful pictures, Joe Sleep was able to provide himself with a viable economic source, and to maintain his self-respect within the community.
Originally introduced to art through colouring books given to him by nurses in the hospital, Joe Sleep gradually developed an inventory of stenciled images which could be reused to create simple and complex picture patterns. Joe Sleep would trace images from colouring books, magazines, or book illustrations per se, sometimes enlarging the size by a simple system of scaling and then he would make a hard cardboard stencil which could be used indefinitely. The inventory was revised and expanded according to customer demands and Joe Sleep’s own interest in significant images from his memory. Even his few human figures which especially look hand-drawn are stenciled images, as is the case with the greatest majority of his works. The unusual dimension of customer reaction is best illustrated by the preponderance of cat images in his works and is best summed up in the artist’s own words “My cat is my best seller”. A similar accommodation to economics was his 13 ½” x 13 ½” format paintings, hung on the fence of the Public gardens in Halifax, purposefully designed to fit in the suitcases of tourists.”
Joe Sleep lived and worked out of a modest studio at 1671 Argyle Street until 1971 when ill health, and economic decline forced him to the street. It is said that a group of art students from the University took him in and gave him a place to stay in a janitors room at the art school for the last months of his life. He died in 1978.
In the 1981 catalogue, Harold Pearse, Associate Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design concludes
“Joe was full of paradoxes. At one minute he would be the convalescent saying his painting ”helps to pass the time”; at the next, the entrepreneur promoting his product, and the next, the artist making decisions about pictorial problems. His life was full of hard work, hard times, little money, bouts with alcohol and poor health, yet his paintings were joyful representation of flowers, fish, birds, animals, boats, and buildings. Joe lived on the fringes of society, yet unknowingly contributed to the visual heritage of the province. He could be a gentle old man who loved children, or a derelict wino, obnoxious and crude. He could be childlike and dependent, or worldly-wise and philosophical. He could tell a story about how he worked with elephants on the Bill Lynch shows (could it really have been for thirty-two years?) and shortly after wonder what colour to paint an elephant’s eye because he had never seen one.
In spite of, or more likely because of these contradictions and paradoxes, Joe was much more than a colourful illiterate street character. He was a friend to have a beer with, to paint a house with, and the father I never got close enough to before it was too late. There was a depth not always fathomable. He was a person with his own strengths, weaknesses, joys, fears, doubts and hopes. His painting gave him pleasure, a means of expression, and most important it gave him dignity. “Well, I’m not sorry about it. I enjoyed every bit of it, and if weren’t for Ken and Harold, I’d still be down on Kent street paintin’ the shit-house door or something”