Art is, in some ways, always a reckoning with death—an attempt to ward it off, to live beyond it, to forget about it, or to laugh at it. It can be simultaneously disarming and comforting to see an artist's work shortly after she has died, especially when, as in the case of beloved Baltimore artist Joan Erbe, who died of complications from a stroke on Aug. 21, both the work and the artist are somehow larger than life.
This sensibility has had a major impact on Baltimore's art scene. Raoul Middleman, who has also championed the carnivalesque and burlesque, was inspired to paint when he first encountered Erbe's work at the legendary artist hangout Martick's. "She had a show at Morris' [Martick's] and I went to a show there and I was terrifically impressed. [It was] before I thought of being an artist," Middleman says. "But her work especially knocked me out with that kind of warm whimsy, that kind crazy whimsy, delectable whimsy. It was great and she maintained that level of invention and fantasy and could translate it into real painterly terms."
Middleman was not the only one to notice the show at Martick's in 1957; it brought Erbe— who had studied at the Maryland Institute, now MICA—critical attention. Within the next decade, she had a solo show at the BMA and exhibited widely thereafter.
Erbe, whose first marriage, when she was 18, produced two daughters, married George Udel, who founded the Baltimore Film Forum, in 1956. "With all of our problems and misadventures, the reason we stay together is when we contemplate being apart that seems even worse," Udel told The Sun's Mary Corey in 1991, just after he resigned from the Film Forum over a censorship issue regarding two films called "Dick" and "We're Talking Vulva." When Udel, with whom she had another child, died in 1999, friends say that Erbe's last words to him were the ones she usually uttered upon departure: "See you in the funny papers."
Later in life, she began to teach a group of professional women painters at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Pikesville. She made her last paintings in 2008, when she quit due to arthritis. But two drawings she did during that period show her sense of humor and whimsy remained. One, called 'The Flirt,' shows a shirtless man reclining, his hands behind his head, with mischief in his eyes. In another, 'Big Catch,' a masked man erotically wrestles with a reverse mermaid which has a fish head and a woman's legs and vulva. The eyes of both figures seem to follow a small fly hovering near the fish's mouth.