Belated RIP, Joe Erceg

Joe's House. Acrylic on world globe by David Chelsea, 2008. Not for sale. Photo by Tom Lechner.
Joe’s House. Acrylic on world globe by David Chelsea, 2008. Not for sale. Photo by Tom Lechner.

2018 is winding down, and I have some unfinished business. The graphic designer Joe Erceg, a longtime friend, died this past June. From the Oregonian obituary:

David Chelsea is reading: Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys
by Michael Collins

Joe Erceg
Joe Erceg

“Portland native and award winning graphic designer, Joseph Erceg, died in his home June 16, 2018 at the age of 84.

Born in 1933, a descendant of Croatian immigrants, he was the eighth of nine children, with seven older sisters and one younger brother who all grew up in North Portland.

Joe had a talent for baseball and pitched for Central Catholic High School and continued pitching in college for the University of Portland where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then served in the Army, after his discharge he used the GI Bill to pay tuition at the Museum Art School (now PNCA), where he later taught. His interest in automobile design is what led him to his discovery of graphic design which launched a long illustrious career in the field.

Joe was a long time fixture of the Portland design community. His refined sense of shape and structure resulted in iconic logos for many companies including Columbia Sportswear and AirWest Airlines (before its purchase by Howard Hughes). In addition, his graphic work was seen and honored in a myriad of branding campaigns, one of which was for the original Lloyd Center, Portland’s first, large shopping mall, built in 1960. Joe’s discriminating, aesthetically imaginative design for the University of Portland Alumni Magazine, won numerous national awards. Never one to confine his work, he also created visually distinctive books for The Collins Companies, The Murdock Charitable Trust, and Walsh Construction, among others.

He was an avid photographer and part of Minor White’s workshops in the late 50s and early 60s. With an eye for the unusual, Joe was a collector of art, neon signs and an assortment of curious and eccentric pieces. The last 20 years of his life, he created inventive assemblage box art in the style of Joseph Cornell, Arman and Edward Kienholz.

Joe was married to Elsa Warnick from 1968 to 1984. He is survived by his sons, Matt and Milan Erceg, Milan’s wife, Shawna and Joe’s grandson, Easton; sisters, Millie, Mary, Rose, Helen, Virginia, Genevieve; and brother, Donald.”

Longtime Portlanders may remember the giant butterfly painting designed by Joe which once covered the side of the Fleischner Building in Old Town:


My own history with Joe predates my birth. My father, Richard Celsi, was born the same day as Joe, December 17th, 1933, and they went through high school, college and the Army together. When my sisters and I were young, Joe and his brother Donald were “Uncle Joe” and “Uncle Donald”, and of course my family attended Joe’s wedding to Elsa Warnick in 1968. Joe’s younger son Milan was my assistant on the first perspective book, and years later my daughter Rebecca and I appeared in Milan’s debut film as director, the documentary 24 HOUR COMIC.

Here is Joe’s birth announcement from THE OREGONIAN. Evidently his parents had second thoughts after the paper appeared, because his name is listed as “Matt”. Joe would later name his first son Matt.


Photo of young David by Joe Erceg
Photo of young David by Joe Erceg

The photograph of me and the one below of my mother were taken about the same time in the early 1960s.

Lolita Celsi, early 1960s. Photograph by Joe Erceg.
Lolita Celsi, early 1960s. Photograph by Joe Erceg.

I later used the one of my mother as the basis for an illustration for the New York Times Modern Love column:

Modern Love Illustration for the New York Times.
Modern Love Illustration for the New York Times.

I also used this photo as the basis for a decorated envelope sent to my mother when she was getting her ESL degree in Hawaii:


As a graphic designer, Joe gave me several illustration commissions, and he eventually commissioned the largest and most elaborate spherical painting I have done to date, a view of the first floor of his house showcasing his various collections, on a large metal globe. For reference, I shot digital photographs, rotating the camera around to capture all aspects of the scene, while trying to keep the lens as much as possible at a fixed central point. I then loaded all the photographs into Lightwave, a 3D animation program, where I assembled them into a virtual collage approximating the shape of a sphere. Since Joe wanted to show multiple rooms in one image, I adopted the M.C. Escherish device of combining three different views, with gravity running in three directions.

Here is an equirectangular projection of the entire painting:


Joe provided the canvas, a large metal sphere that was originally the support for a world globe jigsaw puzzle. Work on it took over two years, in between freelance deadlines. To keep the overall task manageable, I proceeded as if filling in a jigsaw puzzle, painting the pictures on the wall first, then the windows, then the plants and furniture, and finally the walls and ceilings. To save time setting the globe up every time I wanted to work on it, I set up a second studio for myself in the basement.

Joe's House, unfinished. Photo by Tom Lechner.
Joe’s House, unfinished. Photo by Tom Lechner.

Tom Lechner created this panoramic version which you can view immersively, as well as an earlier one based on an unfinished version of the painting. It’s almost like a visit to Joe’s house!