An artist’s life: Altoona’s Joe Servello tells tales of his journey

By William Kibler

Robert Frost said that writing poetry without the discipline of rhythm and rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.

Altoona artist Joe Servello didn’t have Frost in mind when he began painting scenes on scraps of plywood nailed to a base, creating literal depth in the surface to be painted that only sometimes corresponded to the figures in the scenes.

But speaking in March in a conference room at the Blair County Arts Foundation, where there’s an exhibit of his paintings on layered wood, he allowed that Frost’s dictum fits.

Like Frost with rhythm and rhyme, Servello liked the artificial challenge of the lines and depth created by the wood pieces and the base beneath.

Sometimes those lines and those depths meshed with the scenes of women at night, or a magician in a doorway.

And sometimes they clashed, forcing him to deal with the dissonance.

Sometimes they even ushered in a kind of cubism, where he separated elements of a scene from their normal place, bringing something up that would normally be in the background or keeping something down that would normally be in the forefront, or including in the same work views of an object from more than one perspective.

Servello, 81, sees himself primarily as an illustrator and working with the layered wood helps keep him from automatically reverting to the realism of illustration, he said.

He began working with the layered wood – it’s not a regular technique, and he doesn’t really know what to call it – when he was doing ordinary woodwork six years ago in his basement, where it’s cool.

“It just kind of occurred to me,” he said. “Since I’m playing around with all this wood, why don’t I just paint it.”

He uses plywood because it’s stable, and he nails it because he doesn’t trust glue to hold.

“I think I will keep doing it,” he said. “It’s almost like a game.”


Servello has lived the life of an artist.

He could make lifelike drawings from an early age, and always regarded himself as an artist, which, oddly, inhibited his development, because it took him longer to realize he could do better.

He served in the Navy, then started at Penn State Undergraduate Center (which is now Penn State Altoona) on the GI Bill, but “flunked everything,” including art history, earning a 0.33 average during his first semester.

“I passed gym,” he said.

He was going to drop out, but a friend persuaded him to take a portfolio of artwork to Mr. Edwin Zoller. Zoller was a professor of art at the school. It was 1955.

Zoller instructed him to change his major to art education and told all the other teachers to “watch out” for him.

The art education program was strong, and Servello thrived.

He responded better to being taught how to teach art than to being taught how to do it.

The curriculum was broad and included sculpture, wall hangings, ceramics and fabric painting.

“Art education was where all the action was,” Servello said. “Mr. Zoller knew exactly what I needed.”

From then on, he made the dean’s list.

Zoller taught him “practical things” like how to clean a brush, how to mix paint, how to get what you wanted by using the right proportions of primary colors, how to balance colors in pictures.

He taught Servello that process was the key.

Zoller was an artist himself and hypersensitive to color.

He preferred cloudy days, and his own paintings tended to look gray.

“Cool grays, warm grays,” Servello said. “Beautiful and subtle.”

The Ivyside campus owes the continued existence of the reflecting pond, linchpin of the campus landscape, to Zoller’s aesthetic sense, as he argued for keeping it when others wanted to fill it in, according to Servello.

Zoller was patient, kindly and intelligent, and he never raised his voice.

He helped Servello learn good manners and gave him good books.

Zoller didn’t like art contests and didn’t seek fame – although his work won prizes in exhibitions, Servello said.

Servello is fonder of attention.

“That’s why I called you,” he said puckishly.

Still, Zoller became a model for Servello’s life.


Servello has illustrated more than 70 books, including several for authors William Kotzwinkle and one for John Gardner.

He’s also taught theater in private schools – “teaching art was too much art,” he said – and he ran now-defunct Servello Gallery in Altoona with lifelong friend Bill Moffitt, who, strangely, is colorblind.

Servello lived in Long Island for 10 years, Manhattan for three, Philadelphia for five and Buffalo for three.

“[Art] is the only thing I really know how to do,” he said.

He’s lived “penuriously,” said Moffitt, who joined Servello for the interview at the Arts Foundation building.

Servello works every day, usually four hours in the mornings, which is how long he can sustain productivity, although if he’s working on a commissioned project, he can keep it going six or seven hours – especially if the work is particularly interesting.

Having a “purpose” – an extrinsic motivation like a commission to illustrate a book – helps.

Not having anything specific to do when he gets up in the morning “makes me nervous,” he said.

He has painted many realistic scenes of Altoona, which fits with his belief that an artist should paint “what he knows.”

Commissioned work, however, allows him to depart from what he knows, if necessary, to fulfill the requirements of the job.

The job, based on the words of the book he’s illustrating, “tell you what to do, and you have to do that,” he said.

Similarly, the layered wood technique has given him license to engage his fantasy.

Arts Foundation Executive Director Kate Shaffer likes the “three dimensional” effect of that layered wood technique.

Her favorite piece depicts a jungle-like scene, which reminds her of Florida, which is among her favorite places.

The foundation frequently asks local artists to exhibit their works, she said.

Servello’s will be up through April 15.

He’s a “sweet, sweet guy,” who never turns down the frequent requests to produce art to raise funds, she said.

His most recent is a “gorgeous” canvas intended to be a carpet that the foundation will auction off.

Shaffer is not an artist.

“I’m on the business end,” she said. “I’m not the person that can [make] something from nothing.”

She’s envious.

“Oh my gosh, yes,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any more of a gift.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.