By Sue Kern-Fleischer
Life has a funny way of steering us in a different direction. And for acclaimed oil painter Joe Netherwood, life took a serious turn after he spent five years performing as a professional stand-up comedian throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states.
Back then, he had no idea that years later he would be invited to participate in prestigious, juried shows at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana; the Phippen Museum in Prescott; the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas; the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, Texas; and many other notable Western art shows.
Along with Mesa artist Jordan Byrd, Netherwood is one of nearly 100 artists now participating in the Arizona Fine Art Expo, which began Friday, January 10, and runs daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday, March 22, under the “festive white tents” at 26540 N. Scottsdale Road.
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Netherwood loved watching Western movies and TV shows, but he was equally passionate about comedy.
“When I first heard Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner, I started buying his comedy albums,” Netherwood says. “I was only in fourth grade, but I’d take his material and perform it in front of my classmates. That was a watershed year for me, as my teacher, Ms. Stacy, recognized my art skills and she encouraged me to continue drawing and painting.”
Later, in high school, Netherwood formed a rock band with fellow students, performing various gigs at clubs around Richmond, including several after-hours clubs, which were open from 1 to 3 a.m.
“One of the band member’s father owned The Bee Club, and performing after hours there was an eye-opening experience for me,” he says, adding that he witnessed fist fights and other crazy scenes.
“On Monday mornings, my English teacher, Mrs. Posey, always asked us to stand in front of the classroom and share experiences from our weekend. That was my stepping-stone to performing comedy. I would share funny experiences from our gigs, and by doing so I became more comfortable performing in front of a group.”
After high school, he served in the Air Force and was stationed in Texas. In 1984, he moved to Philadelphia, where he worked as a designer and an illustrator. Later, he studied with several faculty members of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
While in Philadelphia, he discovered open mic nights at comedy clubs.
“There were no comedy clubs in Richmond, so I was really excited to have a chance to develop my material,” Netherwood says.
He started performing at The Comedy Factory Outlet, doing 3-minute sets, often last in the line-up, but the more he performed, the better he got.
“One night, the club owner asked me if I could work on weekends, helping to greet and seat people, and other tasks. It was a great opportunity, and eventually I became the opening act, doing 10-minute sets,” Netherwood says.
While he enjoyed writing material, he had the most fun ad-libbing, even when there was an occasional heckler.
“I loved the energy of the crowd,” he says. “I was good at coming up with quick, witty responses during normal banter with audience members, but one of my favorite things was to eat hecklers alive. Some comedians freeze when that happens, but I was like, “Bring it on!’”
Netherwood was so good that he started performing in a few other comedy clubs in Philadelphia and he traveled to several states, and as far west as Kansas, to perform new material. He also entered a comedy contest in Atlantic City and finished strong as a finalist with one of his biggest audience ovations.
“I’ll never forget that contest,” he says. “It was at the Comedy Stop at the Trop in the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City, and one of the other finalists was a young comedian named Ray Romano, who ended up winning the contest. Gee, I always wondered what the heck happened to him.”
Taking his art seriously
Throughout Netherwood’s comedy career, he worked full time as a graphic designer and illustrator. A trip to Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was the catalyst for his fine-art career. It influenced him to portray the love of the West that lay dormant in him since childhood.
“I grew up watching Roy, Hoppy and Gene’s adventures on TV, but seeing N.C. Wyeth’s classic Western illustrations at the museum reignited that passion I had for the West,” he says.
Five years after his trip to Brandywine River Museum, he and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Arizona, where his career took off. Mostly self-taught, he immersed himself in the Western lifestyle by visiting and working on ranches, cattle drives and roundups. In addition, he spent countless hours researching the Old West.
“I’m a hopeless realist,” he says. “Not only do I want my work to show the diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds of the West, I want every detail to be accurate. That means all of the clothes, accessories, riggings on horses, wagons and other details must be period correct.”
With each oil painting, he strives to tell a story. Whether it’s a large evocative painting depicting a battle, a medium-size piece showing the serene landscape of the plains, or a miniature portrait showing the raw emotions of his subject, he pays close attention to form, color and light to capture the beauty and untamed wilderness of the American West.
“The characters of the West intrigue me the most, and I enjoy the challenge of portraying their diverse personalities,” he says. “I get the most satisfaction from painting their faces, and I save that for last. It’s kind of like having dessert after a meal—it’s my favorite part of painting, and I look forward to seeing the final, finished piece.”
While he takes his painting very seriously, the Scottsdale resident never lost his sense of humor.
“Sometimes I insert humor into my paintings, and, if I can, I’ll come up with a clever, tongue-in-cheek title for a painting,” he says, adding that he even keeps a journal of title names that he and Stephanie come up with.
“We have a lot of fun coming up with creative titles, and I think our collectors find them to be entertaining.”
During the fine art show, Netherwood will exhibit a variety of paintings depicting mountain men, Native Americans, cowboys, cowgirls, ranchers and other Western scenes.
“We have great camaraderie among the artists at the Arizona Fine Art Expo, and I really enjoy getting to meet patrons and share my inspiration for my work,” Netherwood says, showing off some of his wit. “And I still get to share my sense of humor with patrons who visit my studio, only in this case I’m performing at an art show in front of a smaller crowd.”
Arizona Fine Art Expo, under the white tents, 26540 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480.837.7163, arizonafineartexpo.com, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, January 10, to Sunday, March 22, $10; $8 for season passes for seniors and military; free for children 12 and younger.