Joe Overstreet (b. 1933, Conehatta, MS), began his career in the Bay Area. His family moved from Mississippi several times between 1941 to 1946, before settling in Berkeley. Overstreet was the son of a mason, and he was exposed early to construction and architectural work. His hometown was extremely rural and isolated. His family, who had first settled there in 1830, had raised trees for wood pulp. Overstreet graduated from Oakland Technical High School and joined the merchant marine, working part time. He attended the California School of Fine Arts in 1953 and California School of Arts and Crafts in 1954.
In the 1950s Overstreet lived in the North Beach section of San Francisco, and was a fixture of the Beat scene. He published a journal titled Beatitudes Magazine from his studio, and was part of a collective of African American artists. During the early 1950s he exhibited in galleries, teahouses, and jazz clubs throughout the Bay Area along with artists such as James Weeks, Nathan Oliveira, and Richard Diebenkorn. His Grant Street studio was located near that of Sargent Johnson, a sculptor and painter who became a mentor. Johnson was an adherent of the philosophy of Alain Locke – the so-called “father of the Harlem Renaissance,” who advocated that African American artists look to their ancestral legacy for aesthetic sources and inspiration.
From 1955 to 1957 Overstreet worked as an animation artist for Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. In 1958, he moved to New York City with his friend, the Beat poet Bob Kaufman. He designed displays for store windows to earn a living, and set up an apartment / studio on 85th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. He got to know many of the Abstract Expressionist painters and felt his real art education came through his relationships with established artists such as Romare Bearden, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, and Hale A. Woodruff, and Hans Hofmann, whose work he knew from Berkeley. (“I got more out of the Cedar Street Bar than anywhere…”)
Overstreet said, “Looking at Hofmann reminded me of how I saw things naturally, and looking at Pollock reminded me of how I could do things naturally.” De Kooning gave Overstreet some of his works to sell so that the young painter could make it through difficult times. Overstreet also identified with de Kooning’s use of house painter’s brushes and this enabled Overstreet to feel comfortable with use of cement trowels, which he used, beginning with paintings such as Big Black (1961).
In 1962 Overstreet moved downtown and set up his studio at 76 Jefferson Street, in a loft building where jazz musician Eric Dolphy lived. From 1963 to 1973 he lived at 186 Bowery. He returned to East Bay Area to teach at the University of California at Hayward from 1970 to 1973.