Joan Erbe, a prolific and successful artist who painted whimsical characters doused with wit and satire, died Aug. 21 of complications from a stroke at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Cheswolde resident was 87.
"Her art speaks. She was never trendy. She just had her own voice," said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum. "I thought of her and her personality as a calm version of Auntie Mame mixed with sculptor Louise Nevelson and Maude from the film 'Harold and Maude.' She was such a big spirit."
Ms. Erbe was born in Baltimore and raised on Bateman Avenue in Windsor Hills. She was the daughter of Harry Erbe, a wholesale coffee salesman who took her to circuses as a child. In newspaper interviews, she said the performers and the sideshow oddities she saw there influenced her art. Her mother, Bertha Metcalf Erbe, was a secretary at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's children's department.
Ms. Erbe told interviewers that her mother would tell her to amuse herself in her room and not to come out until she made a drawing. She built her own cardboard toys, too. Her mother recognized the child's talent and enrolled her at age 7 in Saturday classes at what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art.
As an Eastern High School student, Ms. Erbe majored in art through a Carnegie studies program. She won a scholarship to MICA, where she studied with Leonard Bahr. She also studied with Ann Didusch Schuler and Louis Bouche.
She began painting traditional oil portraits but soon found her own expressionistic style. Family members said she was determined to support herself from the sales of her works, but she also dressed mannequins and designed windows at the old Stewart's department store on Howard Street.
In 1957, she had an exhibition at the old Martick's, the Mulberry Street tavern that later became a French restaurant. The show won critical praise and she was compared to two other well-established Baltimore artists, Keith Martin and Glenn Walker.
She won prizes at the old Peale Museum's Life in Baltimore annual exhibitions and had a solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1967. She also had early displays at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and the I.F.A. Gallery in Washington, D.C.
"I'm into faces, yeah that's true," she said in a 1981 Evening Sun article. "I love faces, except my own. ... I will admit my subject matter is sometimes bizarre, but I don't apologize. To a degree I am amusing myself, I guess. I think I am mostly an easel painter."
She lived for many years in Roland Park. She set up studios on the top floor of her home, on a porch and finally in the dining room.
"Joan Erbe's world is richly peopled with characters of fantasy realized in a way that allows the artist to comment upon the human condition with pungent wit and psychological insight," said Baltimore Sun art critic John Dorsey in a 1995 review of her works. "These strangely formed people with big heads and weird costumes, painted with a palette of vivid colors, are superficially like no one you've seen before. But inside, they're like you and me and all of us."
In 1963, she expanded her repertoire and began working with ceramics and made small sculptures and ceramic jewelry.
"My ceramics are really sort of a hobby," she said in the 1981 Evening Sun article. "I guess you'd say my jewelry pieces are really miniatures of my large paintings. Once I wanted to be a potter but I never got the knack of handling the wheel. So I settled for smaller things. Making little faces is therapeutic. It's fun to make wearable art."
Ms. Erbe exhibited widely and sold numerous pieces. Most recently she had a show at the Fleckenstein Gallery on Keswick Road in Hampden.
"Joan didn't mince her words. She was headstrong and spoke her mind. She didn't care what other people thought," said Terrie Fleckenstein, the gallery's owner. "She pulled the characters she painted out of her head. In later years, her style became looser and her colors even brighter."
Colleagues recalled Ms. Erbe's piercing blue eyes. Ms. Hoffberger compared her to Madame Blavatsky, the 19th-century occultist. "Joan's eyes were great mystic eyes," Ms. Hoffberger said.
Nearly 15 years ago, Ms. Erbe began teaching at the Edward Myerberg Senior Center in Northwest Baltimore.
Ms. Erbe "is that rare and wonderful artist who offers rewards on whatever level you seek them," Mr. Dorsey wrote in The Sun in 1995. "She even punctures the silly pomposity of most artists' statements with her own wise words on the subject: 'Years ago I armed myself with the statement, "If I could articulate what my paintings mean, I wouldn't bother to paint them." ' "
She met her husband, George Udel, at St. John's College in Annapolis at a double bill of Marx Brothers films. He became her business agent and was a co-founder of the Baltimore Film Forum.
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
Survivors include a son, Jacob Udel of Fort Collins, Colo.; two daughters, Joan Richmond Sarinsky of Baltimore and Dr. Constance C. Edwards of Fredericktown, Pa.; and a grandson. Her husband of 45 years died in 1999.