Oakland, Ca. – Joseph DiStefano was fond of saying that life is like luggage. One might have a simple empty backpack, or whole sets of glorious Samsonite, bursting at the seams. Joe’s choices in life and in luggage were obvious to anyone who knew him. An avid collector of experiences, of friends, and of stories, he was a consummate raconteur: the life of every party, and a glorious visual artist, described by one reviewer as “a giant in a paint factory.” He had a compact frame and traditional Italian features. When asked how he’d been doing, he often said, “It’s been a long year. I used to be tall, blonde and Swedish.”
Joe was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on February 28, 1940, the elder son of Al and Virginia DiStefano. Joe served in the US Navy from 1957 to 1960, and was fond of recounting the exact number of years, days and hours of his service. Navy life was not for him, but he did return home with a number of good stories and a very slapdash tattoo of his own name on his arm (which he claimed was inflicted upon him by a fellow service member who was in line with him at the tattoo parlor). Upon his return to civilian life, he worked at IBM as a field engineer and then earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1969 and went on to Yale University, where he completed his Masters of Fine Arts in 1971. Joe and his wife Anita Maiore (married 1964–1975) welcomed their son Christian DiStefano in 1968.
After his graduation from Yale, Joe went on to teach woodworking and advanced sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and the University of California at Berkeley. His own work flourished; he was an extremely prolific artist and was adept at blending traditional sculptural concepts with modern materials and functionality. He was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant — Eight Artists in Industry — at the Kohler Ceramics Company.
In the late 1970s, Joe began working with concrete as a sculptural medium, and invented the oft-imitated casting technique using fabric as formwork. Seven of his concrete sculptures were displayed in his one-artist shows at the Museo Italiano in San Francisco, at the Mackler Gallery in Philadelphia, and at the Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland. Charles Shere, a reviewer from the Oakland Tribune hailed Joe’s work as “surreal, biomorphic, sensual, often witty.” “It’s that rare thing,” remarked Shere—“a new technique, exactly enhancing the stony but somehow manufactured presence of the images themselves.”
Joe met Diane Troy in 1990, and they began working and living together soon after. During the early- to mid-1990s Joe designed a number of notable public artworks, and he and Diane worked together to bring his plans to life. “Your Memory Column” was commissioned by the General Services Administration to decorate the plaza in front of the newly-constructed Oakland Federal Building. The floor and base are constructed of Joe’s cast-concrete signature “sky tiles,” which swirls azure, sapphire, cornflower and white to reflect the bright sweetness of the California sky; the 18ft. column is clad in hand-made marbleized tiles. Another grand work of that time was “Legend of the Magnolia,” a 90ft. ballroom terrace wall commissioned for the beautification of the Sacramento Convention Center in 1995. In 1996, Joe had a show at the Merce Cunningham Studio, after which, he and Diane made the decision to move to New York City. They stayed for six years, living primarily in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. They returned to the California in 2002, and lived there together until Joe’s death on April 20, 2020.
Joe is survived by Diane Troy of Oakland, California; his son Chris DiStefano and wife Kim of Portland, Oregon; his stepdaughters Jessica Troy and her husband Benjamin of Brooklyn, New York; and Samantha Troy and her husband Owen of Oakland, California; and his three grandchildren: Heather and Jason DiStefano and Dylan Troy. He is predeceased by his parents and his brother Anthony.
Joe will be remembered for his lust for life, his cowboy shirts, and his phenomenal collection of drinking glasses. He will be forever beloved for his mentorship, his generosity of spirit, and his good nature. He enriched the lives of all who knew him, and he will be sorely missed.
A memorial service will be planned for a future date and donations to the Parkinson’s Foundation in his memory are appreciated.