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Interview By Ella Rue
Illustrations by Joe Ciardiello

Article first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 37, Issue 2, Summer 2012)

Joe Ciardiello (left) has been drawing for as long as he can remember, probably since the age of four. He was born and raised on Staten Island, in New York­—just a short ferry ride to Manhattan, where he attended The High School of Art and Design and then college at Parsons School of Design, where he earned a BFA degree. Over his more than 35-year career he has worked for most major magazines and newspapers as well as for corporate and advertising clients, book publishers, and record companies. His style is expressionistic, and loose with a sort of musical tone to it.

An accomplished musician as well, Joe plays the drums regularly with both a blues trio and an all-illustrator jazz group. Joe’s been playing drums since high school. The psychedelic sixties, and the explosion of rock music just sort of drew him in. With many thanks and a good deal of help from an uncle who played the drums as a hobby, he was able to convince his parents to purchase a drum kit. Towards the end of college he had to make a conscious decision as to what direction he wanted to take his career, and being that he had been formally trained in art, and essentially self-taught in music, he headed towards a career as a professional illustrator. But as the years passed his love for music, especially blues and jazz, became more and more apparent in his work, and he was drawn to assignments that were musically related.

He created a book with musician/poet John Kruth called Like Jazz, where Joe illustrated John’s poetry, all relative to specific jazz musicians. This was the first time Joe was able to really combine his love of music with his love of expressive portraits. Soon after this, he got a regular feature in JAZZIZ Magazine doing essentially the same thing—only this time he was getting paid to do portraits of jazz musicians, and they gave him complete creative control. These works opened doors that previously appeared to be unattainable—The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Esquire magazine. New and exciting jobs were forthcoming.

Ultimately the “ideal gig” came as a result of both of the previous projects. He was commissioned to do a series of CD covers and packaging for Capitol Records, a series of 24 blues CDs. It was a dream opportunity. The CDs received a good deal of critical acclaim, and Joe’s work was often mentioned in the record reviews. In 2009 Joe was asked to illustrate the cover for the program for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. That too was a sweet gig.

Joe’s pen strokes have an allegro much like his music. His lines express a frenetic quality to them. Thoughts seem to leak from his mind and out of his pen. His work feels quick and spontaneous yet still somehow incredibly intentional, thoughtful and precise. If he isn’t pleased with a line, he’ll blacken it out and fade it into the background, making an accident look entirely deliberate. He composes his drawings in much the same manner as he performs his music; a quick swash of his pen, hand lettered words accenting an image, a splash and splatter of color intentionally added in just the right spot, leaving his marks loose yet discerning and deliberate. His dynamic drawings often have almost a jazz tone to them, reminiscent of a blind contour, unrehearsed and extemporaneous, yet still somehow exact and extremely meticulous. There is a lyrical rhythm, a bluesy beat, a haunting harmony, a captivating cadence, a pitch and a tempo to Joe’s work. He admits there is a “spontaneity within his drawings, almost like a jazz improvisation…” He says “I start at one point and then I’m not always sure where it’s going to go… it seems to almost take on a life of its own.”

Joe is essentially a walking contradiction. He is somehow self-assured and self-conscious at the same time. His work has an immediacy, a grittiness, an urban, metropolitan feel, while in contrast he lives with his partner (also an accomplished artist), Sue Blubaugh, in their beautiful 180+ year old farm house, with a barn/studio just behind the house, and a brook quietly babbling along side the studio, in a quaint pastoral town in Western New Jersey. He illustrates his messages with what appears to be great ease, but comes only with years and years of exacting practice. Like listening to the masters of jazz or blues, there is a freshness, as if the music was just born; Joe’s artwork posses that same impromptu ad-lib quality. His music can be heard at the Society of Illustrators—UCDA’s partner member— in the bustling upper-east side of Manhattan on select ‘Sketch Nights’ or monthly at “Earl’s Restaurant” in Peddlar’s Village in quiet, bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

His work has been shown across the globe and recognized repeatedly by the Society of Illustrators. He recently was invited to present as the Jack Davis Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Georgia. It almost appears Joe has seen and done it all in the world of illustration, but his heart beats and pen bleeds rhythm, blues and jazz. The leitmotif of Joe’s personal work often includes elegy portraits of master musicians both living and dead. If his hands are not beating the blues, they are drawing on inspiration. And when asked what would be his next “ideal gig” he’s looking forward to someday having the opportunity to have a book publisher offer him complete creative freedom where he could create a book entirely of expressive portraits of musicians from every genre.

Left: Like Jazz—a book created with musician/poet John Kruth, where Joe illustrated John’s poetry, all relative to specific jazz musicians. Center and right: Two spreads from the publication.

To give the reader better insight to the inner workings of Joe Ciardiello, I asked him to humor me and answer a few questions in a format similar to Inside the Actor’s Studio. Joe wrote the following in an email message:

Q: What is your favorite word?
A: Funk

Q: What is your least favorite word?
A: Republican

Q: What turns you on?
A: Drawing

Q: What turns you off?
A: Questionnaires

Q: What sound do you love?
A: The crisp crack of a snare drum

Q: What sound do you hate?
A: The voices in my head

Q: What is your favorite curse word?
A: @#*!

Q: What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
A: Musician

Q: What profession would you not like to do?
A: Everything else

Q: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
A: “Too soon”

I must agree, “too soon” is the perfect answer to the last question.

For further information please visit or contact him directly at

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