Joanna Campbell Blake’s career as a sculptor was on the verge of taking off, her friends say, when she was killed in a motorcycle crash May 22 while vacationing in Italy for her birthday.
The 39-year-old Prince George’s County resident was well known and beloved in the local arts community. She used her friends, family members and neighbors as models for her works, on display across the region, commemorating events and figures of U.S. history.
Blake worked closely with renowned sculptor Raymond Kaskey, who recruited her to play a role in sculpting the National World War II Memorial. She also designed a lifelike bronze sculpture memorializing the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland and works displayed at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria, Va.
She was completing work on a life-size sculpture of former president Theodore Roosevelt on horseback for Roosevelt High School in Northwest Washington and, friends said, had many more commissions lined up.
“It’s challenging for an artist to achieve the kind of name recognition that gives you opportunities to do big public art projects, and she was just starting to make that happen,” said Gary Wagoner, Blake’s former art professor and business partner.
According to family and Italian news reports, Blake was riding on a motorcycle with a friend near Florence when they collided head-on with oncoming traffic. Blake was killed, and at least three others were injured, the report said. Authorities are investigating the crash.
The artist’s husband, Isaac Blake, is traveling to Europe to take her body back to her native Alabama for burial.
“She was born on a Sunday and died on a Sunday,” said a cousin, Melissa Spann.
Joanna Blake was raised in a large family on the shores of Mobile Bay, Ala., where her mother taught kindergarten and her father worked as a firefighter. As a child, she created three-dimensional paper dolls. As a teen, she painted a rock-star mural on her Volkswagen.
“It takes time for most of us to find our talents, and it was just so obvious what Joanna’s gift was,” Spann said. “Every facet of her life was creative.”
Blake studied art at Auburn University, where she took classes with Wagoner. He said he considered her a rare talent and encouraged her to pursue sculpting.
Together, they built pieces and started Archimedia Brick, a creative firm specializing in sculptural design.
Blake continued to do work for the company after marrying her college sweetheart and moving to the Prince George’s County town of Cottage City. There, she met other artists, gave birth to her daughter, Myra Agnes, now 5, and set up her own studio.
“Everybody loved Joanna,” said John Giannetti, whose family owns a sculpture design studio and commissioned Blake for the Bladensburg piece. “Her work is incredible. The world has missed out.”
Blake spent months researching the War of 1812 and was painstakingly detailed in ensuring historical accuracy in her work, those who knew her said. Fellow artist Margaret Boozer-Strother said Blake changed the shape of the cannon in the Bladensburg piece multiple times after learning new information.
“Nobody else on the planet would know that, but to her it was important because it would last forever and it needs to be right,” Boozer-Strother said.
Aside from her work, Blake was known for dressing up in period costumes for local art events in Prince George’s, sewing Halloween outfits for friends’ children and baking cupcakes on their birthdays.
“Her way to love people was to give of herself through some creative form,” Spann said.