Phoenix artist Joe Willie Smith pulls open the large door of his backyard studio, light falling on mounds of junk — a chaos of books, records, old amplifiers, tools, overtaking the room.
“This is kind of a tribute,” Smith says, “to finding too many things.”
Some stuff he sells online. Some at yard sales. The rest, though, becomes fodder for his funky, contemplative art.
He reaches into the jumble and pulls out what looks like Frankenstein’s cello, a makeshift assemblage of strings, a tin can and long dented horn with an amplifier pickup. He plunks a few notes. An infectious grin fills his face.
One man’s trash, as the maxim goes, may be another man’s treasure. But for Smith, trash is the stuff of personal expression. Scrounging junkyards, exploring empty lots with his eyes to the ground, the 58-year-old ferrets out the detritus of everyday life — spent shotgun shells, tree trimmings, discarded trinkets — and recycles it into new creations. Call it “found art,” bringing to mind Duchamp’s ready-made urinal (“Nude Descending a Staircase”); call it “trash art” (though his work is too graceful for that) — whatever the term, it’s earning the former newspaper graphic designer increasing attention in the art world.
This month, Smith has two shows in Chandler. “Found,” a shared exhibit with Cave Creek photographer Kazu Okutomi at downtown’s new Tryst Art Gallery, finds space for several of Smith’s large-scale wood assemblages. A free artist reception at Tryst starts 5 p.m. today, as part of downtown’s first Wednesdays Art Walk.
Meanwhile, there’s “Found 2,” a retrospective at Chandler-Gilbert Community College — where Smith and some students, as part of a monthlong look at consumption and waste, are building an elaborate hanging sculpture out of plastic water bottles.
ROOTS OF REUSE
These days Smith’s art carries connotations of ecology, a commentary on our culture of the easily disposable. But back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he first journeyed to city dumps and junkyards for materials, the Arkansas-born artist and civil rights activist was thinking a different kind of green.
“I couldn’t stand the exploitation of artists,” Smith says, referring to the high prices of art supplies. “I guess it was my protest against that.”
His mother, who died last year, was an early influence. Smith keeps and proudly shows the miniature sport coats and ties she made with dollar bill origami. “My mother loved thrift stores,” he says.
“Found,” in the elegantly cool storefront gallery Tryst, showcases Smith’s large-scale, three-dimensional woodwork: “Standing here, wondering which way to go” is a towering, leaning latticework of oiled tamarisk, orange and plywood. In “Cross currents,” painted sticks in Southwestern shades of blue tangle together and dart away with their own sense of movement. (A small tabletop sculpture in metal, “Red Shaman,” makes the case to replace the kokopelli.) There’s a kinetic energy to the art; in fact, the few paperbound prints for sale in the gallery seem like flat sketches begging to be rendered real.
Smith prefers to build his wood art in the field where he finds the disposed tree trimmings. He finds pieces he likes, shaves them down to what he calls “their basic geometry” — each piece working like an individual note in a song — then bends and binds them together, later trucking the assemblage to his home studio for finishing.
So what is one to make of Smith’s creations? A massive wood art piece hangs in his backyard, unfinished and untitled. That one, he says, is his rendering of a living cell, the complex building block of life that is itself a tiny universe; another ponders charts of oceanic currents. But Smith would rather we come to our own conclusions.
“I used to preach in my work,” he says. “Anymore, as an artist — and, in a way, as an African-American artist — the most powerful thing I can do is express my own personal vision. I don’t have to shove it in your face all the time.”
In other words, the meanings are ours for the finding.
When: Artist reception 5 p.m. today; gallery open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Where: Tryst Art Gallery, 63 E. Boston St., Chandler
Information: (888) 638-2671 or