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Joe Andoe: An Artist's Wild Tales

Andoe's manuscripts for the book feature miniature illustrations alongside the text.
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Andoe's manuscripts for the book feature miniature illustrations alongside the text.

Painter Joe Andoe has lived in New York for more than 20 years, but he never stopped thinking about his hometown. Tulsa, Okla., is where Andoe built a reputation as a wild man and party animal — it also inspires his paintings. Andoe has cleaned up his act and written a memoir, Jubilee City, about his journey from juvenile delinquency to a successful career in art.

Back in the early 1970s, Andoe never would have dreamed of himself as an artist. He and his friends concentrated their efforts on partying: drinking whiskey, popping pills, dropping acid, smoking pot and driving fast.

In his memoir, he recalls the first time he got drunk: "It was the birth of my other," he writes. "My new gear, an alternate personality, and my grandiosity was actualized and attainable. At last I had mastered the low art of coming unmoored."

During the next few years, Andoe was busted for reckless driving and drug possession. He and his friends wrecked cars and motorcycles. Some of those friends died; others went to prison.

Andoe says that when he moved to New York and started telling stories about what he had done back in Tulsa, his new friends thought he was exaggerating. He says his memoir has drawn the same response: One guy couldn't possibly have gotten into so much trouble.

Everybody knew that Andoe had a lot of talent, but nobody — not even Andoe — thought his talent had any practical use beyond entertaining people at parties.

He had always loved to draw, but two things kept Andoe from imagining an art career. The first was money: He needed a good job, a steady income. The second was ignorance: Art was something that women did, not men.

When Andoe enrolled at a community college to study agricultural business, an elective in art history made him reconsider.

"I saw that there were guys [such as] Robert Smitson, Dennis Oppenheim — guys who wore cowboy boots, guys who looked like me — doing this stuff," Andoe recalls. "I didn't really understand what they were doing, but they kind of looked like construction workers, like me and my friends, and they were doing this and it looked like they were havin' fun."

Andoe changed his major and eventually earned a master's degree in art, pushing his work on museums when he visited New York.

He married a woman who supported him while he built his career, even after the couple moved to New York and had kids. But he also kept up his wild ways, consuming too much whiskey and cocaine. His career fared pretty well, but his marriage fell apart.

Andoe is sober today, still painting and now publishing his stories. Jubilee City started out as a series of short, autobiographical vignettes that he printed himself. A publisher asked him to write more for the book that ended up in stores. Andoe is currently working on a large mural commissioned for a new building in Tulsa, and is scheduled to show a new batch of paintings at his New York gallery next spring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.
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