Neighborhood Gems: Joe Reno
Joe Reno is a well-known Ballard artist who has never stopped loving the Northwest.
Aside from a military duty in Germany and a time spent among the famous and talented as a student at the Art Student League in New York, Reno has never wanted to do his art anywhere but here.
“He’s in love with the state of Washington,” said architect and artist Milan Heger, a friend of Reno’s. “He’s a true Northwest Master.”
His home, a Sunset Hill house built in 1911 surrounded by an enormous laurel hedge, has been his residence since 1950, when Reno was seven years-old.
Today, it houses Reno’s studio and an impressive collections of art, books and paints he has accumulated over nearly six decades.
At the age of six, he completed his first mural - a floor to ceiling painting in wax crayon. Reno recalls needing the assistance of his older brothers to reach the higher parts.
“My mother told me the first thing I’m remembered saying is ‘Mommy give me pencil, I want to draw’,” Reno said.
His work has been widely published and reviewed, and can be found in the collections of the Tacoma Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, The Museum of Northwest Art in LaConner, the Bellevue Art Museum and even at Ballard High School from which he graduated in 1962.
He was commissioned to paint a 16-foot mural of Golden Gardens Park for the hallway west of the school library.
“When I was in school, I was always jumping out of windows, skipping class and going to the frog pounds and the beaches,” Reno said.
Ironically, the mural at Ballard High School of a figure sitting on a log on Golden Garden Beach reflects that time of running away from school.
“I was just real itchy, frenzy-like,” Reno said holding his well-loved guitar as he speaks. The guitar is a treasure he picked up at Goodwill where he can frequently be found strolling the aisles looking for art, frames and music instruments.
Aside from his paintings and sculptures, Reno has always been dabbling in music. He has made hundreds of recordings and his most current project, the Voomers, can be found on youtube.
But his first artistic passion was drawing and painting and he knew from an early age that he would be a painter. He took fine art classes throughout the 1950s and started experimenting with block printing in the fourth grade.
In his senior year at Ballard High, Reno won the Blue Ribbon Art Contest and was invited to Cornish to audit drawing classes.
But before college came Army duty.
“I thought, let’s do the Army first and get out before the oncoming war,” he said.
In the Army, Reno served in Germany and studied photography, printmaking and painting. He painted murals at Fort Lewis and while on leave in Frankfurt, Germany, the Staats Museum became his university, studying the works of the masters for hours on end.
Serving until 1965, Reno never saw war. Still, his paintings often feature galactic figures symbolizing the many people dying in wars, he said.
“This way their souls aren’t diminished into nothing,” he said. “They’re in the moving vortexes, in the clouds and in the sky.”
After military duty, Reno wound up in New York, where he became a student of Wil Barnet and Edwin Dickinson at the Art Student’s League.
Upon his return to Seattle shortly thereafter, Reno started painting night and day, delivering art to the community and the nation in vast numbers.
Heger said Reno’s works lean toward the tail end of mystique’s tradition.
Reno’s works show mystical leanings because he believes in supernatural powers emanating from our natural surroundings, which is why he loves the Northwest so much.
“Nature is key,” he said. “Composition and character are the most important things in fine arts but you can not teach them, you have to be born with it. You have to grow up with people that are wholesome and develop character in nature, out in the woods.”
Reno said sprawl, environmental destruction and wars are making fine art disappear.
Fine art is crucial because it’s the breeding ground for creative thinking and science, Reno said, pointing out Leonardo Da Vinci who was both, a great fine artist and scientist.
“Fervor, freedom and leisure - from that comes the artist,” he said. “Computers are a depletion of your contact with your natural ways. Genius comes from beaches, beautiful parks and all sorts of creatures. The Northwest is one of the strongest breeding grounds for genius.”
When asked if he sees himself as a genius, Reno quoted Jon Lennon, “If there is such a thing as genius, I am one”.
Heger however, is less hesitant to call Reno a genius. “He’s a true ‘bohemian’ genius,” he said.
When Reno talks his stories are interspersed with names of famous artists he’s known and those he has studied. After 50 years of experience, he’s well educated and well-connected.
“I met him in the art world in the seventies. I, like so many people, admired his paintings,” said artist Ree Brown, a close friend of Reno’s for over 30 years.
“Art isn’t always appreciated - that comes with the trade - but he can be considered a valuable asset to the community.”
Reno never married and sees his art as his offspring and the world as his stage.
“Each human being on this planet is my audience. When I paint, I’m writing a letter to every human being telling them to be happy and not be evil. When I hear of people dying I think I failed them because my art did not reach them,” he said.
Brown said that while you need a whole community to keep fine art alive, Reno is certainly doing his bit.
“He’s the most industrious artist around. You won’t find anyone like him. For him it’s 24 hours a day,” he said.
The energy that ignited in the six-year-old boy covering his bedroom wall with wax crayon art will lessen only when his heart stops beating.
“I will always be painting,” Reno said. “When I’ll die I’ll have a painting brush in my hand.”