Fifty-seven years ago, when he was in his early 30s, Joe Sheppard sparred with Ernie Knox in Mack Lewis’ gym in East Baltimore, and poor Knox, it turned out, did not have long to live.
Sheppard was on his way to an illustrious career as a prolific artist, a realist painter and sculptor who had studied the Old Masters. A student of human anatomy, Sheppard was interested in sketching and painting muscular, bare-chested prizefighters at work. He had the energetic instinct and wanted to get as close as possible to his subjects, so Sheppard asked Mack Lewis, the legendary trainer, if he could work out in his gym. Lewis agreed.
“I got a broken nose, a broken rib,” Sheppard recalls. “It was a very exciting time for me.”
On Oct. 13, 1963, Sheppard sparred with 26-year-old Ernie Knox. Knox was training for a fight with heavyweight Wayne Bethea. The boxers squared off a day later in the old Baltimore Coliseum on Monroe Street.
Knox got to the ninth round before Bethea knocked him down with a right to the head. After the referee’s mandatory eight count, Knox got to his feet, but Bethea punched him again and the referee counted Knox out.
He died two days later from a brain hemorrhage.
The press raised questions about the match: Knox supposedly weighed 178 pounds on fight night, but his autopsy listed his body weight at only 153. His death prompted a grand jury investigation into possible negligence by the Maryland State Athletic Commission and alleged ties between the fight’s promoter and organized crime.
Sports Illustrated jumped on the tragedy and controversy, running a story under the headline, “This Death Might Kill Boxing,” accompanied by Sheppard’s sketches of the fight.
A year later, Knox’s death inspired a Sheppard painting, “Descent From The Ring,” one of his iconic works. It honors Rubens and Rembrandt and their famous renderings of the crucified Christ’s descent from the cross. Looking at it again, after hearing of the Knox tragedy, I note that the mortally injured boxer in Sheppard’s “Descent” is white. Knox and his trainer were black.
“I made the fighter white for artistic reasons,” Sheppard explains more than a half-century later. “The white figure against the dark background makes more of a contrast.”
In fact, Sheppard, who is white, says he also produced a painting called, “The Death of Ernie Knox,” but he sold it and has been unable to locate the owner. If he could, Sheppard says he might include it in a new exhibit that opens this week. That’s a problem when you’ve been selling paintings and sculptures for 60-plus years: With some of your best work in private hands, putting together a retrospective is a challenge.
Nonetheless, the new exhibit, “Joseph Sheppard: An African American Experience,” showcases his interest in black life and culture as he came of age as an artist in racially segregated Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
Many of Sheppard’s subjects — a woman and her children, a girl with flowers, blues singers, civil rights demonstrators, a laborer with a shovel, a marching band, a man brutalized by police — were black at a time when that was still rare among artists.
“There was no black art anywhere, and no black artists,” he says, recalling his years, 1948 to 1952, at what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art. Sheppard was among the last group of students to study with Jacques Maroger, the influential artist who claimed to have learned the secret techniques of the Old Masters.
“When I first went to art school I lived right at the divide between the black community, Pennsylvania Avenue and all, and the white. And I got so interested in the black culture at the time. One of my first paintings, when I started to exhibit, about 1951, [was] a painting of a storefront on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it won a prize at the Peale Museum, in a ‘life in Baltimore’ show.”
Sheppard went to the clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue. He listened to the music. He watched the people. He painted many images from black Baltimore life. “And they were never caricatures,” he says. “They were always, I think, sympathetic. It was very exciting to me.”
Sheppard says that, when he had his first show, at the old Playhouse Theater on 25th Street, so much of the art had African American subjects that people assumed the artist was black. He found that some white patrons would not buy works that featured black figures. But Jewish people, he says, who were also victims of discrimination in those days, bought his paintings, and some of those first buyers became patrons and friends, supporting Sheppard’s work for decades to come.
He is 89 now, and he still spends half of each year in Baltimore and half on his farm in Tuscany, near the town, Pietrasanta, and the foundry where his clay sculptures become bronze.
Sheppard’s body of work is huge, from his paintings of boxers to images of famous figures and historic moments, sculptures of saints and athletes — his golden-glove Brooks Robinson stands in the plaza on the northwest side of Oriole Park — portraits, landscapes and drawings.
There is an exhibition hall devoted to his creations, the Leroy Merritt Center for the Art of Joseph Sheppard, part of the University of Maryland’s Global Campus in Adelphi. That is where his latest exhibit will stand for the next year, and his paintings and sculptures for a long time after.