Joe Average: a remarkable name for a remarkable individual. A Canadian artist, photographer, and printmaker born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1957 who resides these days in Vancouver, British Columbia, he’s not well known south of the border in the United States. But he should be. It’s not just that his art is bold in its colors and imagery and has gained quite a following in Canada. It’s that his work, while it may occasionally remind one of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein or Pop-influenced artists like Keith Haring, is ultimately his own unique take on the world as a person who’s confronted a number of issues in his life ranging from dyslexia to a diagnosis of AIDS when he was 27 years old. He’s won quite a few awards over the years, one of the latest being a commemorative coin using his design released by the Canadian Mint in 2019 to celebrate the progress made by the LGBTQ and two-spirited population in Canada over the previous fifty years.
In a recent wide-ranging interview conducted via Skype, Average discussed his name, his art, the effects of dyslexia and the impact of AIDS on his life and his art, and the various awards and honors he’s received for his work and his contributions to AIDS causes over the years.
As for his name: “I wasn’t born Joe Average,” he said during the interview. “I was born with the name Brock Tebbutt. In my teens, when I got involved in doing art, there was a group of artists living in Vancouver that called itself Western Front. They had all given themselves very wild names like Dr. Brute, Lady Brute, Sally Peanut, Flaky Rose Hips, Grenada Gazelle, and so on. I wanted an art name for myself, and played around with a few names like theirs. But I didn’t feel like I had the kind of crazy flamboyant personality they all did, so I gave up on the art name for a while. Then one day in my late teens, a friend and I were going through a box of magazines from the 1950s she had found in a dumpster. I love old clip art, old advertising art you find in magazines, and these were full of it. I was in heaven. Every once in a while there was the kind of guy in an ad we called ‘the average Joe’——you know, the newspaper man, the milkman, the gas station attendant, with a very chiseled chin, well-groomed. I would say to my friend, ‘There’s another average Joe…another average Joe.’ Then it occurred to me to turn it around and I said, ‘Joe Average.’ We looked at each other, and we both laughed. ‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘That’s my art name. It’s perfect. I’m average height, I’m average everything. I’m nondescript. And it fits with my sense of humor. So Joe Average was born. When I changed my name legally, I kept Brock as my middle name. So now I’m Joe Brock Average. My sister still calls me Brock, as do some of my friends from my teens. Everyone else calls me Joe.”
Of course it should be pointed out that, considering his art career, Joe is anything but average.
Asked what drew him to art, Joe answered, “In school I had trouble reading. Later I was diagnosed with dyslexia, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew I wasn’t good at reading. There were all these words in books and on the blackboard in school, and they didn’t make any sense to me. What I liked to do was draw. I knew I was good at it because that’s the only thing I was ever praised for, usually for my drawings on the family refrigerator, not my report card from school. I loved sitting in a coffee shop with my sketch book and Rapidograph pen. I’d sit there for hours and lose myself in the fantasy world I was putting on paper. I was never without my sketchbook, and pretty much stayed to myself.”
He continued: “One day at the beginning of grade 10, I’d had enough. I decided to quit school. It was the last period in the morning, and I walked out. When I got home, my dad asked me why I wasn’t in class, and I said, ‘I tried, but I can’t learn anything there. I’d rather go out and learn something in the world.’ He said, ‘Well, I can’t really disagree. Good luck to you.’”
Asked if he went to art school, Joe replied, “I did take a silk-screening class, but I don’t remember anything about it. I don’t think I learned anything from it. Mostly I’m self-taught as an artist.”
AIDS was also a prod in the direction of art. “I was diagnosed with AIDS in my late twenties,” Joe said. “Everything went okay for a while, then I started losing a lot of weight and having opportunistic infections. So they gave me what was available then, which was AZT and a broad-spectrum antibiotic. My doctor said to me, ‘I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, Joe. You probably have six months left.’ I thought to myself ‘If that’s all I have, what am I going to do in those six months? Certainly not just live on unemployment like I’m doing now. It’s too depressing waiting in those lines and answering the same questions over and over again to get my benefits. What can I do to make myself want to live instead of feeling depressed all the time?’ So I challenged myself to try living off my art. This was something new. I had never before considered art as anything I could make money at.
“I started staging shows in my small apartment in the West End of Vancouver. My rent at the time was something like $180 [Canadian dollars] a month, so I priced each piece of art at that same amount so if I sold even one thing I could pay my rent for the month. The shows were well attended, and I was selling some pieces, which encouraged me. But I wasn’t that well known. Then I was invited to donate pieces to a big Hadassah fundraiser. I did, and I saw it was a perfect way to get my name out there. So I started donating pieces to causes I liked, and my art became popular. I also became known for being helpful in the community, which got my name out there too.”
As already noted, Joe’s art is for the most part very colorful and playful, although it also has its more somber moments. Asked about his artistic influences, he laughed, then commented, “It’s such a hodgepodge. My mother was an artist. She didn’t do much with it until later in life, but she’d show me her old paintings. My grandmother was a very artsy kind of woman. She introduced me to different aspects of art and took me to art shows. I had a lot of art around me as a kid. But first and foremost as an influence, I guess, would be art by the First Nations or indigenous peoples of British Columbia because I was surrounded by it. It is so beautiful, so colorful and bold. That’s where I got the bold lines and color in my art. Also, as a kid I loved The New Yorker magazine, one of the main reasons being Saul Steinberg’s illustrations. I was mad about Saul Steinberg. And at an early age I discovered Pop Art. So visual influences were First Nations art, Saul Steinberg, and Pop Art. The first time I saw Pop Art I thought to myself ‘You can do that and call it art? I’m for that because it’s how my brain works.’ Anyway, it was Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. Wow! Roy Lichtenstein! I mean I just admired the Pop Art guys so, so much.”
It’s clear that the introduction of the antiretroviral cocktails in the mid-1990s, which so changed the landscape of the AIDS crisis, extended Joe’s lifespan far beyond the six months his doctor had predicted, and he’s put that time to good use.
“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I loved photography.” Over the years he’s shot many kinds of nature images, including all types of flowers and birds; landscapes and city-scapes; pets; self-images, and images of friends and other individuals he’s met. For a while he did this at night or very early morning. He explained: “Because of the drugs I was on for AIDS, I had lipodystrophy, my body fat disappeared, I looked like a skeletal junkie. I became very reclusive because I didn’t want to show myself like that and see how people reacted to how I looked. I’ve gotten much better about that now, but for a long time I went out at night to photograph, or very early in the morning so no one would see me.”
As for painting, he noted: “These days I have a painting program on my computer. I’ve been doing computer paintings, often based on photographs I’ve taken. I also have a Wacom tablet with stylus that allows you to draw and paint freehand. You can choose the stylus or brush you want to use, even the thickness of the paint.”
Joe’s art communicates a kind of colorful, joyous wittiness. Asked about that, he answered: “I’m going to jump back to early influences here. I was five or six, maybe seven, years old when I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. When I entered the room where the party was going to take place, the first thing I saw was this giant console color TV playing color cartoons. Those colors burnt themselves into my cornea, I think. They brought me joy, and ever since I’ve tried to make colors in my art glow as much as I can to recreate that joy. I want to draw people out of their own worlds into my world of color and joy, to make them happy.”
Much of his art is autobiographical in the sense that it embodies issues or themes that have molded his life. For example, the piece titled Average Joe, from 1995. Some of his works also touch on AIDS, before and after the introduction of the antiretroviral cocktails in the mid-1990s: This Is the Little Critter that Lives inside Me and Protects Me from AIDS, done in 1991 when he was very sick from the disease, and My Thinking Cap/Life with HIV, from 1997 when he was already on a cocktail and clearly feeling optimistic enough about his future again to reference terms like “HOPE” “MEDICATION” and “COURAGE” in his thinking cap. All three pieces are colorful, playful, whimsical. They are fun to look at and certainly joyful in their intent.
As already noted, one of Joe’s early influences was Pop Art, especially the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. And yet his work has its own distinct flavor. Asked if he thinks of himself as a Pop artist or has another label for his work, he answered: “I guess you could call me a Pop artist. But I don’t really think of my work as having a label. It’s funny. Keith Haring was enjoying his success around the same time I was starting to enjoy mine. We were compared quite a lot, and one story called me the ‘Keith Haring of Vancouver.’ Our work has some similarities——bold, black lines and bright colors. I don’t mind being connected to him in the minds of others. But why not call me the ‘Joe Average of Vancouver’? After all, I’ve made quite a name for myself apart from anyone else.”
The name Joe has made for himself has resulted in quite a few awards and honors over the years. To list some of the most important: In 1991 a design by him was incorporated into Canada’s first AIDS awareness poster, used around the country; also in 1991 he was one of fifty Canadians invited to dine in Ottawa with Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales on one of their state visits, where at Diana’s request he sat and chatted with her for ten minutes about his art and her work around AIDS. In 1994 he was chosen to design an image commemorating the XI International AIDS Conference, which was held in 1996 in Vancouver and whose theme was “One World. One Hope.” The design was also used for a series of Canadian stamps that year. For his fortieth birthday in 2007 a bench bearing a plaque with his name on it was installed in the Rose Garden of Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa. In 2003, he was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists. And in 2019 a design by him was used on a coin commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of legalizing homosexuality in Canada and the progress made by the LGBTQ and two-spirit people community since then; the coin came in two versions: in Joe’s words, “one just a normal embossed loonie [the Canadian one-dollar coin] for general-circulation use and the other a ten-dollar sterling silver full-color commemorative coin for collectors, which of course costs you fifty bucks [Canadian] to buy.”
It’s clear that Joe Average is not just your average Joe. From art to AIDS to his name to decisions he’s made over the years to live his life on his own terms, he’s an original. One might well ask: What areas will he explore through his art in the future?
For more information about Joe Average, log on to: www.joeaverageannex.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.