Josef Kalleya was a prolific Maltese artist who specialised in sculpture and drawing. His interest towards art began at an early age, and he quickly began studying at the Malta Government School of Art under the sculptor Antonio Micallef and took lessons from Arturo Galdes, Giuseppe Calì, Lazzaro Pisani, Edward and Robert Caruana Dingli and Giuseppe Duca. Similar to his peers, he too wished to further his studies abroad, and in 1926 he went on a short educational trip to Rome. A few years later in 1930, he was awarded a scholarship from the Italian Government and a subsidy by the Malta Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. This allowed him to travel to Rome where he furthered his studies at the Regia Accademia di Belle Arti, under the tuition of Angelo Zanelli (1879-1942) and Guido Calori (1883-1965), and at the Regia Scuola della Medaglia, under Giuseppe Romagnoli (1872-1966). In Rome, he married Elsa Ornato and they had nine children together. In addition to his formal academic training, Kalleya was also very keen on expanding the artistic practice in Malta. He, together with his peers including Carmelo Bonello, Vincenzo Maria Pellegrini, Vincent Apap and Giuseppe Mangion, created the Società di Belle Arti in 1933. Three years later, he also created the Studio Artistico-Industriale Maltese d’Arte Sacra, also known as Istituto di Cultura Artistica, which organised the first ever life-figure nude class in Malta – the Libera Scuola del Nudo. Furthermore, he was the president of the local artistic group Atelier ’56.
Characteristically, Kalleya was fiercely passionate about his artistic practice, which he used as an outlet to explore his internal preoccupations. A deeply religious man, he is known to have been deeply troubled by the near-impossible task of rendering the non-material into material form; through his artworks, he aimed to explore the spiritual dimensions of faith and the universe through a personal expressionistic idiom that broke with conventional academic norms. This is stylistically reflected in his vigorous sgraffito technique in both his drawings and sculptures alike. Such techniques elude towards his search for the origin of matter, with each attack towards his medium conveying an immense charge with spiritual and emotional energy. Most of these experiments were created in his studios, first in Strada Zecca, Valletta, which also doubled as an art gallery, and later at his residence at No. 6 Spencer Hill, Blata l-Bajda.
Throughout his long and fruitful career, Kalleya received various honours and accolades including the Midalja ghall-Ordni tar-Repubblika of Malta and, in 1978, the gold medal of the Malta Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In 1988 one of his sculptures was presented as a prize to the Worker of the Year. Moreover, in 1990 President Dr. Vincent Tabone presented a bronze crucifix by Kalleya to Pope John Paul II in the course of his pastoral visit to Malta.