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It's a Living

Postage stamp marks local illustrator’s latest success


Last month, the U.S. Postal Service issued the newest stamp in its Literary Arts series honoring novelist Saul Bellow, a recipient of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

Joe Ciardiello of Hunterdon County illustrated the stamp depicting Bellow on a Chicago street wearing a fedora. Joe based his illustration on a photograph taken of the novelist in 1982 and kept the writer’s face as the focal point by painting the background in neutral colors.

The stamp is just the latest in a long, very successful art career. Joe’s clients have included American Express, Barnes and Noble, Capitol Records, The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, and Time.

“Like Jazz,” a compilation of black and white drawings of Joe’s favorite jazz musicians, such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others was published in 1992.

“A Fistful of Drawings,” a “graphic journal,” was published in 2019 to much acclaim. Joe describes the book as his effort to knit together an account of his Italian heritage and his lifelong love for spaghetti westerns. The book contains ink line and watercolors of Clint Eastwood, Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren, Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, and others.

Joe’s grandfather, who emigrated from Italy in 1906 to settle in Staten Island, N.Y., mentioned to his grandson that he had once seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. This sparked something in Joe’s imagination that made him partial to movies about the Old West, which dominated the film scene in the 1950s.

Joe says, “Like most boys of that generation, I was obsessed with the genre and wanted to be a cowboy. By the mid-1960s, as interest in Westerns waned in the U.S., the genre was being revitalized in Italy. At one point, half of all the films produced in Italy were Westerns.”

I ask Joe if he has always been an artist. “My earliest memory of making any art is trying to draw Popeye at around 3 or 4. I was obsessed with the old Popeye cartoons from the 1930s.”

His first paying illustration job was a black and white spot drawing for Crawdaddy, an American rock music magazine in 1974. At the time, he was in his senior year at Parsons School of Design, and after graduation, with much encouragement and support from his instructors at Parsons and his parents, Joe began pursuing illustration jobs.

“I’ve been doing this professionally for 50 years!” he says, as if he can hardly believe he’s been at it that long. I think how lucky he is to be able to make a living at something he obviously enjoys doing so much.

“I think I always knew I would make a living as some kind of artist.” I ask what would have been his second choice. “Music,” he says without hesitation. Joe played drums for The Half-Tones, an illustrator jazz group that mostly performed for sketch nights at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan.

Joe was born and raised in Staten Island. I ask what brought him to this area 22 years ago. “I had friends living out here, so I was familiar with the area. When a house came on the market that had an outbuilding for a studio space, my wife, Susan Blubaugh, and I decided to make the move. We love it here.”

Susan is a landscape painter and Joe describes Hunterdon County as a “perfect” location for artists.

These days, Joe is working on a book with a music theme. He also plays for HuraKane (formerly the Kane Trio), a local blues trio with John Kane on guitar and vocals, Dan Casserly on bass and vocals, and Joe on the drums. They have a gig coming up at the National Hotel in Frenchtown, N.J., on June 1.

I ask what his favorite piece to create is. “Drawing faces with character is most enjoyable to me. I guess that often means older people.”

And does he have any advice for young artists just starting out? “Do the kind of work you are passionate about and try to find outlets for it, even if that means taking a regular job outside of the field to pay the bills.”

"It's a Living" is a weekly column showcasing residents who are making a living in an interesting way, or people who’ve reinvented their careers because they could no longer ignore the voice in the back of their heads telling them to start over, take a risk, chase a dream or set out on their own.

These are stories of bravery, persistence, resilience, and vision.

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