+ By Julia Gibb
About twenty miles south of Annapolis, a rural landscape unfolds: rolling hills patchworked with farmland and dotted with barns, some functional, some crumbling. Tucked away from the main routes through this bucolic setting, in a stand of mature forest, is the fixer-upper home that Joe Karr shares with Marcy Rhoades and their standard poodle, Grace. All three members of this family unit are strikingly tall and elegant. Karr has expressive silent-movie-star eyes and a brooding countenance, but as he speaks he reveals the playful and optimistic character that guides his artistic expression and his life choices. Sprawled on a chair in his screened-in back deck, his laptop open on the table in front of him, Karr is situated amid echoing songs of wood thrushes punctuated with the occasional crow of a rooster. “This is my office,” he says, referring to the computer. It is connected wirelessly to a ten-terabyte hard drive on the lower floor of the house. “I can keep filling it my entire life and never run out of space.”
Growing up in Pasadena and Arnold, Maryland, Karr became friends with local musician (and publisher of Up.St.ART Annapolis) Jimi Davies in high school. He would pick up the guitars around Davies’ home and play, developing a passion for musical expression. He was also influenced by Ruben Dobbs of the band Swampcandy. Karr recalls asking Dobbs for guitar lessons. “He said, ‘No, you can’t get lessons from me—the stuff you do is kind of backwards, and you don’t pay attention,’ which is how I do anything anyway,” he laughs. This was Dobbs’ way of telling Karr to keep developing his own unique style, one that reflects Karr’s dark artistic sensibilities—even his recordings of Christmas carols have an eerie feel about them. The two of them would gig around Annapolis, Dobbs encouraging him to come out of his shell more when playing and singing. Later, Karr would write songs, sitting in with Davies in his bands Jimmie’s Chicken Shack and Jarflys, and perform on his own.
Karr attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied painting and formed strong mentor relationships, notably with glass blower Thomas Sterns. He also developed an interest in sculpture, but when he wanted to double-major in those two forms, he was told he could not. This is a theme for Karr, who loves to go where inspiration takes him, no matter the medium. Though he’s been told by some that he should give up music to focus more on art, he still writes songs and performs.
His work, whether photographic, painted, or digital, has a noir feel. Innocent scenes, such as a child happily playing in the water, are lit and processed in such a way that adds an element of menace. Many works contain images of guns, but they may be juxtaposed with images of bunnies, children, beautiful women, or flowers. “Guns are everywhere [in our culture],” he explains, “they are more common than a pepsi® can.” In Karr’s creative world, there are no constraints. Physical painting mixes with virtual painting in Photoshop.
Karr believes in artistic honesty, so it’s no surprise that his work represents his own multifaceted personality. Karr combines elements into layers that make up his compositions. He may start with a photographic image of a book, then layer wood textures, graphics, and colors on top of that to achieve his finished piece. He keeps a virtual “art box” of files on his hard drive. They are filled with images of eyeballs, leaves, birds, and textures.
In addition to his fine art pursuits, Karr has been working with Bruce Ebel of Gold’s Gym for the past five years to create the brand Freeplay® and rebrand the Mr. America® bodybuilding contest. By bringing his aesthetic to logos, website design, and other types of promotion, Karr has helped to develop a more organic, edgy feel in hopes of appealing to a broader clientele. He has enjoyed the challenge of working on something he wouldn’t normally gravitate toward as well as the outcome—seeing his work translated to posters, skateboards, large-scale signs, and banners.
The home in the woods is a necessary place of solitude for Karr. He enjoys interacting with people, but needs quiet time to process those conversations. “That’s why I like it here,” he says, gesturing at the forest around him. “You don’t have to have any conversations. At all. People see me as dark and moody as hell, but in a lot of ways I think I’m happier than most people I meet.” Perhaps this is the result of the unfettered artistic searching Karr has allowed himself over the years. He finds his work therapeutic, and it helps him understand his place in the world. Right now, his place is in the woods with Rhoades, Grace, and his eyeball files. “I love being here, where your best friend is the sunset.” █