The Art of Converting Scrap

sarah fox photograph

BREAUX BRIDGE – The world of Joseph Jilbert is contained in an aesthetically disturbing tin-sided dwelling –– half house, half workshop. With a bedroom, kitchen and living room all linked by a common toolshed décor, it’s tucked far away from the sparse traffic of Rees Street.

A dirt driveway forged by truck tires leads to a place you have to be looking for to find. Joseph’s “friends” are scattered about the expansive yard: Peepers, Scrap Vinci, My Avatar, Eagle Dancer and the rest of the gang.

Underneath an elderly oak tree sits a tired-looking red Isuzu truck, its bed filled with random industrial metal pieces that in their age show rusted shades of autumn brown, orange and red.

Jilbert sifts his calloused hands through the odds and ends like a shopper perusing the bins at a flea market, revealing a vast array of nuts, bolts, washers, pipes, connectors and indistinguishable items. He plucks a piece at random; takes a step back; and repeatedly tosses it lightly into the air, resembling a 1930s mobster flipping a quarter over and over beneath the gleam of a streetlight.

“All of that will be art soon,” Jilbert says. “Those are my materials. What people call scrap, I call gold nuggets.

Everything in this truck is going to be art.”

Even the three family-size cans of jalapeños?
“Those?” he says. “Those are mine. I just really like peppers.”

It’s 9:36 on a colder-than-usual morning, and Jilbert is a tad behind schedule. Known for creating 15 to 20 metallic sculptures welded together from donated, recycled scraps (his niche in the art world, he says) per day, Jilbert hasn’t even lit the welding torch yet. Don’t worry, though. By tonight, this lawn will be littered with new pieces – or new “friends,” as Jilbert prefers to call his sculptures. It’s an ambitious pace, one he sustains with an endless pool of energy that on this particular morning is fueled by a breakfast of Arby’s potato wedges and purple Gatorade.

A staple of the Louisiana art scene for decades, Jilbert’s work ranges widely, from sculptures measured in ounces to sculptures measured in tons. The inspiration for his pieces is diverse. He’s created giant crawfish, miniature motorcycles, life-size mermaids and even a treasure chest. The only constant is the metal –– none of it manipulated, all of it donated by local farm suppliers, oil field providers and machine shops.

A lot of his work is sold to or commissioned by merchants searching for something out of the ordinary to create a buzz and lure patrons into their shops or restaurants. Mestizo’s Mexican restaurant in Baton Rouge proudly displays Jilbert’s 15-foot-tall warrior outside its entrance. In 2009 Jilbert constructed a 16-foot-tall crawfish prototype while the city of Breaux Bridge discussed whether to fund a 45-foot crawfish to be erected off Interstate 10, promoting the town as “The Crawfish Capital of the World.” And Peepers – a humongous zoomed-in display of eyes and a nose – will be shipped by barge to its home outside a New Iberia architectural firm upon completion.

“There’s just so much to do that I allow myself three to four hours of sleep on a restful day,” Jilbert says. “I just can’t stop – because even when I sleep, I’m dreaming sculptures. My brain doesn’t have a timer. As I’m talking right now, things are coming to my mind. Like, I’m seeing shapes everywhere.”

Perhaps no anecdote showcases Jilbert’s obsession with his craft better than his Facebook post on Nov. 5, 2010:
Burned my eye out. 5 pieces of metal taken out, made my own sculpture out of it! Back to work
Several followers typed their concern, checking on Jilbert’s well-being. Jilbert never responded. There simply wasn’t time.

The world of Joseph Jilbert blossomed on a depressed Hayti, Mo., cotton farm and evolved from a grandmother’s cruel trick.

One of 18 children – all of whom were expected to suppress personal aspirations for the betterment of the whole through manual labor – Jilbert says he was always considered the “weird one” in the family. Half Norwegian and half Cherokee Indian, Jilbert did not have a childhood filled with spoils but rather hardships that nurtured his resourcefulness more than they suppressed his spirit. For instance, Jilbert planted his own secret garden of vegetables to eat from because, on many nights, there simply wasn’t enough food to go around at the dinner table.
When Jilbert was 5 years old, his grandmother passed around a Sears Roebuck catalog. She then handed the kids a pencil, telling them to circle the items they wanted for Christmas. Glowing with excitement, Jilbert flipped through the pages furiously, circling everything he desired.

He handed the catalog back to his grandmother.

“Good, Little Jojo,” she said to Joseph. “Now, pretend you have them.”

While his siblings either cried or stood there stunned, Jilbert asked for the catalog back from his grandmother.

Using the 2-dimensional pictures as blueprints, Jilbert scavenged the farm grounds in search of items – rocks, pieces of wood, crops, tools, whatever – that resembled the shapes of the toys he circled. Once Jilbert gathered enough material, he pieced together homemade versions of everything he wanted from that catalog.

The next day at school, Jilbert asked the “rich kids” if he could hold their toys for a minute. It wasn’t that he wanted to play with the toys or steal the toys. He just wanted to feel the toys.

 “Most said, ‘No! Get away, you little Indian boy!’” Jilbert recalls. “But the ones that did let me hold them – that’s all I needed. Seeing the toy on paper is one thing. Seeing it in real life is another. I tossed my books in the corner and went out, finding stuff on the ground.

“I came back, asked the kids to show me their toys again. When they did, I pulled my toy out and said, ‘Mine does more.’ They just stood there and said, ‘That little Indian boy does toys!’

“And all of a sudden everyone was my friend.” 

The world of Joseph Jilbert isn’t always what it seems.

Dressed in an old U.S. Army camouflage jacket with a wool winter cap pulled down to his eyebrows, Jilbert stands in front of a pile of nothing that he’ll turn into something.

What exactly? He is not quite sure.

“Even now, I don’t know what I’ll do with this,” Jilbert says. “I don’t go into things with a preconceived idea.”

Jilbert bends over and picks up a piece of metal. It’s V-shaped, except the point is rounded. He flips it upside-down, so it stands upright on its own on a workbench.

“You’d look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a man standing up on legs or something,’” Jilbert says, just before he turns the piece on its side. “But I look at it, and I’ll start building up to a nose or a cheekbone. And the pieces keep falling in place, falling in place.”

Although Jilbert’s art attracts an ever-swelling group of admirers, the boldness of some of his pieces has irked others. In 2008, when Jilbert moved into a rented house in New Iberia’s historic district, he decided to spruce up the front yard by erecting a 10-foot-tall statue of a female. Jilbert named the piece Salvage. Neighbors filed complaints to City Hall about Jilbert’s piece, claiming that the statue – although not permanent and set to be shipped to a client in Arkansas in a matter of months – brought down property values.

He was aware of the grievances, but he didn’t let the negativity consume his energy or, more important, his time to create.

“I like to say: ‘Everybody wants three wishes in their life. Well, you can have two of mine because I only need one.’ You know what that is? I wish I could live to be about 500 years old because that’s how much time I’ll need to finish all of my ideas.”

Jilbert laughs.

“Actually, I’ll probably need a good insurance plan to make that happen – so two wishes.”

Categories: Theatre + Art