What happens in the studio shouldn't always stay in the studio. Studio Visit is a series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a discussion about their work. This month: Joe Willie Smith, whose “Ko Mo – Not Knowing” exhibit at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum opens on Friday, September 14.
“This is a funky, ugly house.” That’s what Phoenix artist Joe Willie Smith recalls thinking 15 years ago when he first saw the 1947 house he now calls both art studio and home. Smith was doing an estate sale at the time, and learned the family was hoping to sell the house. “They were taking bids in a Mason jar,” Smith says. “I put in the lowest bid, but I got the house.”
It was a far cry from the Spanish Colonial Revival home in the F.Q. Story neighborhood, where he’d lived before getting divorced. At the time, Smith was planning to buy a $350,000 house in North Mountain. And his art studio comprised the red brick building on Grand Avenue, where artist Karen Fiorito’s anti-Trump billboard looms large today.
Smith went with the funky house instead, paying just $52,000 for it. Turns out, the family’s decision was driven by more than money. During the estate sale, he’d talked with a woman named Lupe, who’d lived in the neighborhood since the 1940s. Lupe wanted Smith to get the house, he says. And that did the trick. He’s been living and working there ever since. Smith even left his full-time graphic design gig for The Arizona Republic, since his mortgage payments were so small. “Getting the house gave me a lot of freedom,” Smith says.
He’s transformed the house through the years, filling the once-barren yard with found objects, artworks, and plants. The massive wooden sculpture that sits on his front porch today anchored his “Cultural Savant” exhibit at Scottsdale’s Civic Center Library back in 2014. Nearby, there’s a white life-size sculpture of a big cat he’s planning to transform with color and patterns for the next “Chaos Theory” exhibition in October. In a side yard, he grows rare succulents. “Every state I’ve lived in, I’ve learned about local plant life,” he says.
Smith was born in 1949, in Elaine, Arkansas. “My family were sharecroppers,” he says. “They picked cotton until it became mechanized with the cotton gin, and then there was no need for manual labor.” They moved to Milwaukee, where Smith recalls childhood days spent on creative pursuits. “I built strange things, did science experiments, made drawings and paintings, and worked in a little garden.” As a teen, Smith turned an attic into his art studio. “It was all Bauhaus, with my name painted in black and white on the door.”
Today, Smith is still a maker, tinkerer, and gatherer.
He’s modified his house with hand-built window panes and tall niches that make it feel more spacious, and added on in the back so he has areas for storing found objects, working with power tools, and other creative pursuits. There’s a traditional living room, sparsely furnished since it doubles as a staging area for exhibition prep, and a small computer area where Smith works surrounded by books lining salvaged shelves. In every room, art abounds, sometimes collected during travels to Cuba or other countries.
“I’ve been collecting and making and selling art all my life,” Smith says. “I’ve never not thought of myself as an artist.”
Smith’s home studio reflects his diverse roots. “I’m part Choctaw, Irish, and African,” he says. “My grandfather was half Native American.” He uses all three names passed down from family members. There’s Joe, from his mother’s father, and Willie Smith, from his dad. Today, he’s got three grown children and seven grandchildren. Naturally, several enjoy their own creative pursuits.
But, Smith’s studio also channels his embrace of objects that others have left discarded. “My mother used to take me to thrift stores,” he recalls. Today, Smith still scouts them. And he's got a few favorite junkyards where he finds objects, like vehicle doors, that make good raw material for sculptural pieces. But he’s also fond of foraging vacant lots and other urban landscapes, in search of materials to feed his eclectic sensibilities.
On any given day, you might find Smith building a sound-based sculpture, filming his own urban explorations, or getting ready for the next exhibition or performance. It’s all a beautiful extension of wonder well-cultivated during childhood. “I’ve been lucky to stay a kid my whole life,” Smith says.
Here’s a look at Smith’s take on New Times’ studio visit questions:
Tell us about your work in haiku format.
My present work is the creation of ‘Sonic Sculptures’ for performance.
What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I have been a great admirer of the work of sculptor/craftsman Martin Puryear.
What are you reading?
The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman
If you could collaborate with any artists, alive or dead, who would it be? And why?
James Turrell. I love the way he thinks about light and color.
What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
The last exhibit I saw was at the temporary LaJolla Contemporary Art Museum, works from the collection. I wasn’t impressed.
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Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic? And why?
I don’t understand this question.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Advice from my track coach in high school. "To get to the finish line, every step is equally important".
What are you currently working on?
The installation of ‘KOMO, Not Knowing’ at the Mesa Contemporary Art Museum. Opens September 14, 2018.
What's your most valuable tool as an artist?
Being as aware of the moment as I can be. Focus.