He attended the National Academy of Art and the Art Students League in New York City. As Kalfel was a young student, Louis Tiffany saw his work exhibited at the Commerce High School and invited Kalfel to become his student.
During the 1930's and the depression Joseph Kalfel belonged to an artist circle including Ben Shahn, the Soyer brothers, Alex Dobkin and others. He worked on WPA art projects and shared a studio with Bernard Kassoy. As the World War II arrived he joined the army to served under General Patton, returning to NYC as the war ended.
To finance his artistic work, Kalfel worked as a commercial artist creating pulp fiction book covers and illustrations, artwork for magazine advertisements and commercial illustrations. He also was one of the original artists creating Paint-by-Number sets of art. He worked for Art Award and his work "Last Supper" was exhibited at the Smithsonian in a retrospective of paint-by-number artworks.
He exhibited as a painter in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Many of his works depict scenes from his travels around the world. His work was collected by such notables as Dr. Max Jacobson (one of John Kennedy's physicians), Joseph Auberbach (Hollywood producer), Nachum Shamir (former Israeli Trade Minister), Evelyn Davis (former Vice President, Children s Television Workshop) and Dr.Walter Liebling.