Joe Selby was an important African-American maritime artist who painted directly from the docks of Miami from 1920 to 1959.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, “Old Joe” Selby spent his early years as a deck hand on freighters. In 1905, at the age of twelve, his leg was injured by a breaking towline aboard ship and had to be amputated. Unable to continue in his former profession, Selby settled in Miami and started sketching yachts on Miami’s City Pier, selling his work for $25-$75.
Eventually Selby started offering more elaborate painted yacht portraits, approaching boat owners and offering to paint their yachts. If they agreed, Selby would come aboard to take measurements before settling himself next to the dock’s fire station to directly observe the yacht from a distance and sketch. It’s unknown if Selby ever had any formal art training, but years of direct observation of maritime life along with rigorous practice obviously made him skilled at depicting vessels with a realistic flair.
Selby painted the yachts of some of the most famous industrialists and millionaires of the period including the Rockefellers, the Morgans, General Motors magnates Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering, William Leeds, Swedish Industrialist Axel WennerGren, and Arthur Curtis James.
Selby lived in Miami for more than 50 years, most of the time in public housing in the Overtown district. Eventually he earned enough to construct his own home at 22nd Court. His last known yacht portrait was in 1959.