Joseph Craig English’s parents recognized their child’s gift. They “encouraged me to paint, draw and create at every opportunity,” he recalls. But when it came to making a living as an artist, he had to “navigate an obstacle course of resistance from my parents and friends who felt that it was impossible [to do so]….This only galvanized my decision to proceed with a renewed effort to succeed.”
His persistence paid off. English, now 68, has spent some 41 years as a full-time printmaker-painter-sculptor. In the Washington metropolitan area, his portrayals of “the everyday landmarks we often ignore because they’ve become so familiar to us” seem ubiquitous; nearly every local gallery has displayed his self-described “upbeat and happy” prints, and the artist and his work show up at just about every outdoor art show. English’s works record the color and energy of the Mid-Atlantic, and his efforts are as recognizable as the artists he favors—among them, Edward Hopper, Richard Estes and Henri Matisse.
Two of the artist’s sculptures have become Montgomery County landmarks. Seven giant (up to 18 feet high) brightly colored, freestanding steel-plate figures, a multicultural representation of county residents working, playing and shopping, were installed by Giant Food Corporation at Rockville Pike and Randolph Road in 1997. A stainless steel sculpture of Washington Senators baseball great Walter Johnson, created with metal craftsman Tom Ricci in 2000 for the Bethesda Big Train baseball team, is at Cabin John Regional Park’s Shirley Povich Field.
Strathmore Hall Arts Center recently renewed a decades-old relationship with English via a 34-piece “retrospective” of his work on view at the North Bethesda Mansion from Nov. 21 through Jan. 3. The artist was among the first to show his work in the Mansion at the start of Strathmore’s exhibit program in the 1980s, recalls Eliot Pfanstiehl, the arts center’s CEO who praises English’s “iconic images of local sites including the (now defunct) Little Tavern in Silver Spring.”
The artist returned to Pfanstiehl’s radar when County Executive Isiah Leggett commissioned English to create an artwork he could use as a county gift to dignitaries here and abroad. “Mr. Leggett chose the image of Strathmore Music Center in the background with medallions of Montgomery County Youth Orchestra students in the foreground,” Pfanstiehl says. “At that point, I suggested to (Mansion Curator) Harriet (Lesser), it was time to bring Craig home to Strathmore again.”
The Music Center, English explains, is a “cultural landmark for the county” and “the culturally diverse orchestra symbolizes the strength and talent of our home enhanced by its diversity and welcoming to all peoples, regardless of their backgrounds.” In September, he also created a limited edition, “Strathmore Staircase,” which he personally assesses as “one of the very coolest prints I have completed in a long time.”
Lesser illuminates why viewers are drawn to English’s art: “Many people are moved in a personal way because he gets close to where they are. [He] allows people to be closer to art because of its content, its appealing color palette, and his honest and warm approach, from just the right point of view; he always lets you know where you are.”
Charlene McClelland, the Mansion’s director, and English’s Washington Grove neighbor, has purchased at least a half dozen of his works. His art, she says, “somehow celebrates things that are hometown, nostalgic, familiar, in beautiful, bright colors.” And English is active in their community. “Craig has been organizing Labor Day activities, including a sort of triathlon, for about 30 years; he’s the grandmaster of it all,” McClelland says, adding that “Anyone with kids in the neighborhood knows him through his volunteering. He has been very kind and generous to Washington Grove Elementary School.” English’s 1985 mural of a school bus dropping off children hangs in the school’s lunchroom, and he guided groups of fifth-graders in creating murals in 2011 and 2015.
The work in schools may be a kind of giving back for the nurturing English received in the Northern Virginia schools he attended. In Falls Church, his elementary school principal “had a special love for the arts, and was frequently pulling me out of class to attend special arts workshops she had arranged with local artists.” As an Annandale High School freshman, he “learned silkscreen printmaking, and fell in love with the challenging craft of hand-cutting stencils and working with the vivid, flat finished oil pigments.”
English, who studied communication arts and design at Virginia Commonwealth University, spends time in his home studio daily, on both art and the business of art. “Aspiring artists should recognize that a large portion of every day goes toward the logistical aspects of running a business,” he says. “The successful handling of these requirements frees the artist to enjoy his creative time and make art, which is, after all, the main goal.”
Becoming a better businessman changed his personality, he says, resulting in “shedding my introverted nature to become more engaging and communicative. I have also become more organized, embracing my creative time to challenge and optionalize every moment I have in the studio.”
Art for everyone has been a lifelong conviction; as such, English has committed that his work not be “beyond the financial reach of the everyday man on the street.” Prices start at $60, with a large original hand-printed serigraph selling for $300 to $400.
English plans to show and sell his work at 15 arts festivals during the coming year. “I would invite anyone who loves color and enjoys seeing it lavished on local landmarks to come out to one of my shows, take a few minutes and meet the artist. Every piece of art has a story, and the road to creation generally involves a very interesting trip.”