When Joanna Campbell Blake died in a May 22 motorcycle accident in Italy, the world lost a promising 39-year-old figurative sculptor. Those in her hometown of Mobile who knew her longest said something more perished on that Mediterranean road.
“Joanna comes from a family that believes whatever your talents are, then that is your obligation to share what you have and you do what you can for your community and for others,” Melissa Spann said.
Spann sees those themes in Joanna’s career at Maryland-based Kaskey Studio Inc., where she contributed to numerous large-scale projects including the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Spann is Blake’s first cousin. The pair were close in ways more than mere proximity.
“Our mothers were the only sisters from a large family so we grew up together. I was her maid of honor. She was godmother to our children and we weren’t that far apart in age,” Spann said.
Spann said Blake’s mother, Joleen Campbell, taught school for more than 35 years. The former Alba High School homecoming queen went on to marry another public servant in fireman Alan Campbell.
“Everybody knows him by ‘Boaty’ because he was a fireboat captain and knows everybody in Mobile. He lived his whole life on the bay,” Spann said. Boaty’s other child, son Alan, continued the family tradition by joining the fire department.
The cousin said their mothers’ family bore humble origins that honed their creativity for addressing any number of problems. During her childhood on Hollinger’s Island, Joanna’s gifts emerged early.
“She was drawing three-dimensional pictures when she was 4 and 5 years old. As a child, she painted a sign for her grandmother’s bakery,” Spann said.
Petite, attractive and vivacious, Joanna’s creativity and energy only grew. In high school she spent a year wearing the notoriously hot garb of Theodore’s bobcat mascot, and did more than emulate the symbol.
“I remember her making this 15-foot-tall chicken wire and papier-mâché float for homecoming. It was the Theodore bobcat in boxing trunks and boxing gloves,” Spann said. A job arranging flowers turned into portentous work shaping Mardi Gras floats.
“In high school her first car was this orange Volkswagen and she painted a mural of rock icons like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix on it. She also made Halloween costumes for kids and other people,” Spann said.
When Blake graduated from Theodore in 1995, she enrolled at Auburn as an art major with a concentration in painting. After three years of her studies, art professor Gary Wagoner made a discovery.
“She was doing some clay portrait study in the Auburn ceramics studio when I saw she had the vision and skill for sculpture. She had been teaching herself how to draw and paint the human figure since childhood and really did have that mastery. I think she may have surprised herself a little bit since it was kind of a natural translation,” Wagoner said.
He offered her a job in a commercial endeavor but that quickly shifted. She was soon his business partner in Archimedia Brick, a sculpting design studio.
After Joanna’s graduation and marriage to college sweetheart Ike Blake, the husband’s videography career took him to Washington, D.C. Joanna found work with Giannetti’s Studio just over the state line in Cottage City, Maryland. Her obvious talent stirred next-door neighbor Kaskey Studio to employ her.
It was there Blake became involved in the National World War II Monument and further honored her strong roots. She told a reporter in 2003 about her grandfather Archie E. Campbell of Point Clear, who served aboard the USS Alabama, and how she wrote his name on the underside of a bronze eagle on the memorial.
The birth of her daughter, Myra, in August 2010 didn’t slow Blake. She pressed forward and enhanced her growing reputation with more and more projects.
Blake returned to Auburn when she sculpted panels for the College of Science and Mathematics Building and the Chemistry and Biology Building. She also worked on the Pedestrian Portal Project for her alma mater as well as public works for local municipal projects such as Opelika City Schools.
In Cottage City, Blake became known for her generosity, thoughtfulness and unbounded creativity. She often designed and created vintage attire for special events.
“She was a wonderful seamstress, just incredible with creating beauty in any aesthetic,” Wagoner said.
“When people around Cottage City had parties, she would bake for them. When she came home for these big family weddings, she would arrange all the flowers,” Spann said.
Blake honeymooned in Italy so she returned there with friends for a short vacation, during which she died on her birthday. Her family spent weeks in red tape to return her to Mobile for a June 7 service at Our Lady of Lourdes prior to interment in historic Magnolia Cemetery.
Blake’s family has founded a memorial scholarship in her name. Donations may be made to Auburn University Foundation for the Joanna Campbell Blake Memorial Scholarship Endowment, attention: Melissa Hage, to College of Liberal Arts Office of Development, 317 Biggin Hall, Auburn University, 36849.
“She really understood sculpture like a classical master. She was just on the cusp of breaking through and having a major career of her own,” Wagoner said.
“They say some people look for beautiful places while other people make places beautiful. Joanna was one of those people, both with her work and in her personal life,” Spann said.