Joe Willie Smith, “Musical Chairs”

Composer Harry Partch once described himself as “a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry.” Partch was poking fun at his reputation for building his own instruments. Adorned with evocative, fantastical names like Crychords, Diamond Marimbas, Gourd Trees, Eucal Blossoms and Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Partch’s instruments sounded and looked otherworldly, as if the man had reached into a dumpster full of bamboo shoots and scrap metal and hammered these elements into Dr. Seuss-ian formations.

It’s worth remembering composers like Partch and OG musical prankster John Cage because they poke giant holes in classical music’s image as a staid, humorless artform. And it’s why some of the most exciting musicians working on the experimental stage today are spiritual heirs to their anarchistic spirit. Arizona artist, sculptor and musician Joe Willie Smith is one of them.

A veteran artist who has been deeply embedded in the Phoenix arts community for decades, Smith is putting together an exhibition for Mesa Arts Center’s Get Jazzed Festival. The show, Ko Mo – Not Knowing (opening on Friday, Sept. 14), will display a variety of Smith’s works. Among those pieces are Smith’s self-made instruments: unique assemblies of metal rods, wires, horns and warped surfaces, turned into sound-generating wonders through the artist’s deft touch.

Joe WIllie Smith, “Sonic”

Whereas so many artists are eager to spill the beans about the meaning of their works in artist statements long enough to strain David Foster Wallace’s eyes, Smith prefers to let viewers work it out on their own. Ko Mo – Not Knowing could very well be a mission statement for Smith. Reflecting on a massive drill bit–inspired sculpture he designed for Harrison Properties in downtown, Smith said, “I don’t like to tell people what things are. I want them to stand there and figure it out.”

For anyone who fears a sentiment like that means Smith makes confounding art, rest assured that most of his work isn’t meant to be a J.J. Abrams–style mystery box. He often designs functional art and has also sold custom-built furniture and art pieces at local boutiques like Lizabel’s Treasures and Practical Art.

Consider his “Musical Chairs” sculpture, which he displayed at the Gebert Contemporary in Scottsdale. The nine-foot-wide piece fused five smashed steel chairs hung from the ceiling. This warped chandelier could be played – Smith revealed his sonic wizardry by putting mics in just the right places to tease out all sorts of textural sounds from the piece.

Joe Willie Smith performance, photo Sean Deckert

Inspired by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, Smith is fond of creating pieces that have a similar skeletal quality, often evoking Calder’s brilliant colors (including a shade Smith admiringly calls “Calder red”).

Though he’s been an artist for most of his life, displaying works at venues like Bentley Gallery and Eye Lounge, Joe Willie has also landed work in major collections locally and beyond – including Phoenix Art Museum, Butler Museum of American Art and Taller Experimental De Graphica in Havana – and in corporate and private collections, including film composer Danny Elfman’s.

Smith has been commissioned to do experimental sound workshops at the Musical Instrument Museum, where he has also performed with Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra. Like his avant-garde forefathers, Smith understands that music can be found anywhere. You just have to know how to coax it out of hiding.

Joe Willie Smith performance, photo Sean Deckert

And, like Partch specifically, Smith is a scavenger at heart. A gifted “picker” and avid collector, he knows how to find the materials for his works by hitting up the right junkyards and secondhand shops and sometimes just from stumbling upon them “in the wild” during his walking meditations through town.

Smith once did a show for Scottsdale Public Art that was called Cultural Savant. A name that doesn’t suit him: savant implies an instinctual, unthinking way of knowing. Smith’s work, even if it comes from an instinctual place, displays a level of skill and craft that doesn’t “just happen.” It takes a true master to make a chair ring like a bell.


Ko Mo – Not Knowing

September 14 through January 6

Mesa Contemporary Art Museum, North Gallery

The opening reception, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on September 14, will feature musical performances from Blaise Lantana, Dennis Rowland and Jesse McGuire.