After putting away his brushes, disappointed at his first attempt, Joel Roger Yonce never imagined he’d pick up painting again. But after the death of his wife and the need for an expressive outlet, he’s back at it at the ripe age of 82.
“I never did think I could do this,” Yonce said.
He remembers watching Bob Ross on TV years ago after getting off work at the Gainesville Mill, where he was a loom technician, or, in his own words, a “loom fixer.”
He watched Ross and listened to him as a way to relax and unwind after a long day’s work.
“He had a pretty voice,” Yonce said. “You’d fall off asleep watching him. He's got a smooth voice … So I watched him, and one day I said, ‘I believe I could do that.’”
So, his daughter, Caroline Keener, bought him some canvas and an easel, paints and brushes for his birthday and Yonce got to work.
He went down to the family’s old farm house and set up the easel, drawing inspiration from the woodline where the house sits.
“That's where he did the very first one,” Keener said. “But he brought it home, put it in the closet and never really thought much about it.”
The painting stayed there in the closet at his home, waiting to be discovered again.
“I ain't no Bob Ross,” Yonce said, laughing. “I hid it. I put it in the closet and hid it down there.”
About 10 or 15 years passed and Yonce was living with his wife, Margaret, in Keener’s daylight basement — more like a house of it’s own with a kitchen, living room, bedroom and floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, with an unobstructed view of empty grass lots, trees and sky — as Margaret’s health was declining.
She died in early 2018, leaving Yonce alone after more than 50 years of marriage.
“I went to their home, and when I was cleaning out some things, I found the painting in the closet and that's when I said, ‘You ought to try this again,’” Keener said.
It was all in an effort to give him a new purpose after losing his wife of more than 50 years. Yonce needed a way to get through his grief and he needed a way to stay active.
“I didn't have nothing else to do,” Yonce said. “I wasn't able to work no more … so I just started trying to paint a little bit and it just kept coming to me. I just enjoyed it more and more and I found out I liked it pretty good.”
It wasn’t just that he “liked it pretty good,” he was also pretty good at actually doing it.
He started painting again — with canvas set on the original easel he had years ago — churning out a couple landscapes each week.
Landscapes are what he’s good at and it’s what makes him feel most at home. When showing off his paintings, he’s sure to point out each eagle he paints flying in the horizon — he’s proud of those.
Some of his paintings have bodies of water, others have trees and fields.
“That's what I enjoy most of all,” Yonce said. “Just painting trees or the sky and clouds. I enjoy that more than anything else.”
Keener decided he needed to share that joy with others, so she asked to have some hung in Avocados and Atlas Pizza, two restaurants on the downtown Gainesville square. It wasn’t long and she started getting calls to purchase some of the paintings.
Hannah Erickson was eating lunch with her son at Avocados one day and noticed one of the paintings. She found that one of Yonce’s paintings “spoke” to her.
“I’ve never bought a painting in a restaurant on a whim like that,” Erickson said. “But when I saw this painting, I could just tell whoever painted it was painting with passion and meaning. And then when I read about who the painter was, he was a local artist, that really stood out.”
She called and set up a time to meet Yonce, but the meeting was a little unusual. Erickson invited Yonce to her home to show him the view from her back porch.
“The painting is very special because it’s a picture of mountains and a lake with a beautiful sunset background,” Erickson said. “My home in Harbour Point has the exact same view. So it was almost like he was sitting on my back deck painting.”
Admittedly, Yonce was surprised anyone would want to buy his paintings. He wasn’t in it for the money, but if it brought someone else joy, he was happy to let them take it home.
“I just kind of enjoy doing it,” Yonce said. “And I didn't think anybody would buy them.”
But Keener knew his paintings were good enough to hang on someone’s wall. They're hung all over the walls of her basement and there are still some hanging at Avocados and Atlas.
“He was surprised, happy surprised,” Keener said. “But I wasn't. Because like I told him, I think they’re good … It just takes the right person to see it and that's true with all types of art.”
Paintings by Joel Roger Yonce
Keener said Yonce takes the lead on his painting. She helps him over to the easel, but once he’s sitting in his chair with his painting apron on, everything that ends up on canvas comes from his hands. She may offer a little advice here and there, but other than that, Yonce is the one behind it. She’s happy he’s found something he enjoys doing so much.
“I didn't just want him to sit and be depressed,” Keener said. “... This gives him sort of an outlet, I guess, to express and I think it's just a great thing for him to do, so I just encourage him.”
Yonce doesn’t need much encouragement. He’s eager to paint.
“It’s just relaxing,” Yonce said. “You just relax when you're painting something. And you know you're doing something somebody might enjoy later on and for years to come.”