Louisiana artist Joseph Jilbert brings his funky, recycled creations to the Oil Center — an appropriate venue considering his medium of choice.
By Dominick Cross / Photo by Gwen Aucoin

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

LivingInd1You may call them scrap yards or junk yards, but Joseph Jilbert considers them shopping malls. What are nuts and bolts to everybody else are gold nuggets to Jilbert. Such is the point of view of a scrap metal sculptor who incidentally looks out for the environment with each creation.

“What you throw away, I sculpt away,” says Jilbert. “I’m a green artist.”

Jilbert’s sculptures range in size from 2 inches in height to 60 feet tall. He does not cut, bend or paint about 90 percent of the scrap metal he uses in each piece he welds together for his creations. Nor does he have a preconceived notion of what he will make. “All the pieces talk to me,” says Jilbert. “They just tell me what to become.”

And you can see what they told him at the Oil Center Gardens, Saturday, March 24, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., in “So Swank in the OC with Joseph Jilbert – An Art & Music Event.”

Jilbert uses scrap metal that otherwise would be bound for the junk heap: machine cutoffs, broken farm equipment, oil field parts and metal people just drop off.  “My support system is oil companies from all over the state of Louisiana, machine shops, sugar cane companies, farmers, passersby, a banker, the neighbor, you name it,” says Jilbert. “It’s all cool. They just feed me constantly all this metal being thrown away.” Lately, Jilbert’s been working on an 18-foot-tall mermaid called Blush being pulled along by a seahorse that’s 9 feet tall. An Indian warrior named Squanto stands 16 feet tall and weighs in at 4,952 pounds. Then there’s the Comet Catcher, a “wild looking alien girl riding a meteorite catching a comet,” he says.

And you can also expect to see a 25-foot tall dinosaur. “He’s going to be a trip to get down there,” Jilbert says. “He’s a raptor, but I call him the Scraptor ’cause it’s all scrap metal.”

“There’s a lot of huge sculptures,” says Jilbert, but there are also normal size pieces as well. “There’s nothing I cannot look at that I can’t build. I can build an animal and make it look just like your pet. I redid a guy’s girlfriend. He said, ‘Dude, I don’t have a girlfriend anymore.’ I said I’ll make you one,” Jilbert adds with a laugh. “He showed me a picture and I made him one. I said, ‘Use lots of oil.’”

Jilbert says he has a program for leasing his sculptures out on a three-month basis. “Instead of paying so much for sculptures, I started a program where you can lease them out for a month for $500 to $1,000,” says Jilbert, adding that a restaurant in Baton Rouge has one and so does a hotel in Arkansas. “There’s a lot of downtown areas that are trying to bring people back downtown, and naturally they’re trying the arts and everything. So, most people don’t have a half-million budget to bring people downtown,” he says. “So you can lease them out.”

Jilbert, 56, has been an artist since he was 5 years old. He is the 14th of 18 children in a third generation of cotton farmers. He’s currently based on four acres of land in St. Gabriel and has plans to make a sculpture garden. “I have thousands of sculptures,” says the half Cherokee and Norwegian artist. “My toys are just getting bigger and bigger.”

Transporting the sculptures is quite the feat, says Jilbert. It takes cranes, Bobcats, frontloaders, loaders to hoist them on a flatbed where they’re strapped down.
“You want to see something spectacular; it’s better than being on the best float in Mardi Gras,” he says. “It’s absolutely awesome to see these things going down the road, three-to-five big trailers. You wouldn’t believe the traffic, the honking, the people, the picture-taking. It’s amazing.”

It’s just part of the process, Jilbert says — one he thoroughly enjoys. “That’s what I do. I have a lot of fun. I don’t work, I’m an artist. I sculpt,” he says. “I do this seven days a week, 16, 20 hours a day. I can’t stop. People keep dropping off scrap metal constantly, and I just can’t wait to get to it all.”

Some sculptures can take from 22 hours to 80 hours to even 120 hours complete. “I’ll do the small sculptures to give me a break,” he says. “And then I’ll jump back on the big one and go to some small ones and then some big ones.” Going from one sculpture to the other is one thing. Soldering the different types of metal, textures at odd angles is quite another.

“I do things most welders won’t even attempt to do,” says Jilbert, a self-taught welder. “I’m doing welding on different metals. I’m having to fuse them together and that’s a science in itself.”

As part of an art program called Art and Seek he does with students from nearby schools, Jilbert will make something out of the scraps the students give him and then they must find it on the sculpture. “They have to look for it. See what it became. A finger. An eyeball. It’s Art and Seek,” he says. “It teaches them. It opens up their minds.”

Jilbert says a student asked him recently why he became an artist.

“‘Mr. JoJo. If artists are starving, why did you chose it?’” Jilbert recalls the student asking him.

“I didn’t choose it,” Jilbert told student. “It chose me.”

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