BATAVIA -- Celebrated artist Joseph Whalen of Lockport said he had been painting for about five years before he grasped the principles behind his creations.
"I started painting between the ages of 16 and 20, and then I went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and learned how to paint," said Whalen, who, more than 60 years later, continues to share his view of the world around him through his watercolor and acrylic paintings.
Whalen estimates that he has crafted around 4,000 paintings, many of them landscapes and renditions of corner bars set in the early 20th century. About 50 of his works are on display at the Roz Steiner Art Gallery at Genesee Community College's Center for the Arts through Jan. 6, 2012.
Two free public events at the gallery are scheduled to kick off the exhibit. An opening reception will take place at 1 p.m. Thursday and an "Artist in Attendance" celebration will take place from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Born in Lockport in 1927, Whalen found an affinity to drawing when he was 7 years old. "I had a bone disease and was seriously ill as a child," he said. "I spent three years in the hospital and I would draw to pass the time."
Before long, he realized he was very good at drawing, and was encouraged by his school teacher mom and postal worker dad to pursue his calling. Whalen gives much credit in those early years to his painting instructor, Sister Mary Julia, SMN. "I remember that she was very kind yet honest, and had the greatest accent in the world -- being from Belgium," he said.
After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology, Whalen studied at the Albright Art School and Buffalo State College. He spent 35 years as an art teacher at the junior high level in the Lockport area and, during that time, founded the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society and was a prominent member of the Buffalo Society of Artists.
His paintings have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Gold Medal of the Buffalo Society of Artists, and have been displayed at venues such as the Burchfield-Penny Art Center and the Albright Knox Art Gallery.
Whalen, a pleasant man who spices his comments with humorous one-liners, also has ties to Batavia, having "won a couple prizes at the Batavia Society (of Artists) shows," he said, and through his longtime friendship with WBTA radio personality Wanda Frank, another Lockport native.
"We met when I was running the arts guild in Lockport," said Frank, who greeted Whalen at the Roz Steiner Art Gallery when the interview for this story was conducted. "That was about 60 years ago and we've cared about each other ever since."
Whalen, when asked to describe his style of painting, was at a loss for words. "I knew you would be asking me that, but I really don't know what to say."
For the father of eight children (and grandfather of 26 and great-grandfather of two), he is motivated more by subject matter than by style. Some of his best works are scenes of daily life in New York's poorer neighborhoods, such as "Jenny Light" (1973), a large woman passed out in a chair on her front porch.
"And I really like the bar room scenes," Whalen said. "There was a lot of opera there. You had the divulging of secret information that the person (doing the talking) didn't know they were divulging."
Whalen's paintings are in the hands of collectors across the country, including a doctor in Chicago and a retired factory worker in Lockport, who each own about 40 of his works.
"I've had a lot of success, but it's not just about the monetary gain," he said. "Recently, I saw a former student of mine who told me that he always wanted to buy one of my paintings. He said he had been saving his money and saw one that he liked, priced at $500. I said that he could have it for $200.
"To think that he had saved up for a while to buy that painting. How do you not appreciate something like that?"
Whalen said his success as an artist was a product of necessity --"as a teacher we didn't make a lot of money back then," he said -- and of a loving and supportive wife of more than 50 years.
"None of this could have happened without Kay," he said. "I don't know where I'd be without her."
A Quick Look
WHAT: "The Art of Joseph Whalen," an exhibition.
WHERE: Rosalie "Roz" Steiner Art Gallery at Genesee Community College, 1 College Rd., Batavia.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays through Jan. 6, 2012. Visit the gallery website at http://www.genesee.edu/gallery/ for special event and holiday hours.