There are piles. Invading the open, sky-high warehouse doors to this past-its-prime industrial space on Choctaw Drive, the summer sun gleams hot off a dozen mounds of metal and derelict parts scattered in clumps across a dusty floor. Junk.
There are no piles. No, these are sculptures in the making, quips their energetic shepherd Joseph Jilbert, a wildcard who brings garbage to glory, who takes so many things forgotten and makes them unforgettable; an artist who’s on a big winning streak and holds an even bigger vision for just how high the arts in this adopted city of his can really fly.
The 58-year-old polymath pushes a pair of angular welding goggles upward on his forehead to perch on top of a tight black cap and reveals a set of adventurous eyes. He walks past an old dented pickup—his only vehicle, even though his work can sell in the hundreds of thousands—and he starts to look a lot like Charles Lindbergh or some other explorer soul as the leather of his gloved hand wipes a swathe of sweat from his brow.
“If I smile any more, my face is going to crack,” he says, pacing around an ethereal winged sculpture that lies prostrate on the floor before him. He will complete it soon, and then this towering piece will stand as a kind of archangel for Capitol Arts Studios, Jilbert’s latest and most ambitious effort to date.
Controlling roughly 60,000 square feet of space—with more adjacent properties coming online early next year, he says—Jilbert is opening an artist colony with an event venue, studio spaces, gallery spaces and an “artist think tank” where Baton Rouge’s creatives can hang out, network and talk shop.
He anticipates that Capitol Arts Studios will also host acclaimed traveling artists for workshops and critiques to improve local art. “There’s a lot of fun that Baton Rouge is missing,” Jilbert says.
It’s only August, but plans are underway for a large concert and art show to launch the venue Nov. 1. As he describes this extravagant debut, Jilbert waves his arms at not-yet-there stages, lighting rigs, green screen projections and a conveyor belt to move his massive sculptures through it all.
Does he sketch these concepts? Does he share his notes?
No, says Kelsey Moon Juleff, the fellow artist Jilbert hired as his assistant this summer, as he bounces from one sculpture to the next. “It’s all in Jojo’s mind.”
Jojo. That’s what everyone who knows him calls him.
He admits that a lot of these ideas come to him in dreams—for instance, adding a credit card entry to make his new gallery 24/7—as he reenacts what looks like a lightning bolt surging through his veins.
“It’s like I’m hit with a white light—ZOOM,” he says. “And my eyes flicker. I wake up and have to start on it right away.”
At first blush, Jilbert can come off as scattered, even frantic. But when so many ideas strike him at once, his rapid-fire dialogue can’t help but run laps around reality.
And yet, Jilbert’s visions are no mere mirages. He’s been an in-demand DJ in New York City, designed concert and restaurant spaces in New Orleans—where he moved with his family at age 8—and many of his new, freewheeling ideas have become as substantial and recognizable as the metal figures found around the interior and exterior of Circa 1857 on Government Street.
Next door, Dufrocq Elementary was the first school to initiate his “Art & Seek” program last year. Young students brought in random items from home, and Jilbert incorporated them into a sculpture. “Robot Dufrocq” was auctioned off, and the proceeds went back to the school to help fund its arts program. Now, Jilbert is pushing for the concept to go statewide.
Jilbert’s work is also on display in BREC’s “pocket park” on Convention Street downtown.
“We didn’t commission them—Joseph contacted us and donated his work, which is incredible,” says Cheryl Michelet, communications director for BREC. “The sculptures really add the perfect visual focal points and another layer of interest and personality to the park. It’s amazing what art can do to enhance the beauty of nature.”
Now BREC is focusing more efforts and resources toward bringing public art to the city’s green spaces, and Michelet says a new collaboration with Jilbert is likely.
Still, Jilbert’s interest lies less in plugging into the existing cultural apparatus and more in creating a new one with the mission of aiding young talent in the region.
All artists who show at Capitol Arts Studios will receive 100% of the proceeds.
“You have people opening up galleries, and they are absolutely killing the artists by taking so much off the top,” Jilbert says.
Last month, the venue hosted its first event, Elevator Project’s ARTcade: Homegrown Superheroes, a grown-up funhouse and fundraiser for the local arts group. Jilbert loaned one of his warehouses for free.
“Jojo’s ideas all seem so grandiose, but when you break them down to their components, it’s just going to take other partners and supporters to help him make it all happen,” says Elevator Projects founder Raina Wirta. “When it does, it will really retain young artists in Baton Rouge. So many move away because of a lack of opportunity here. But Jojo is changing that.”
Producer Jeff Levine, who met Jilbert while he was in Baton Rouge for Pitch Perfect 2, is spearheading a documentary about him, Kawasaki is taking a “steampunk motorcycle” he made on the road to events, and his latest sculptures are set to travel to New York, Paris and beyond later this year. Yet even as his art is poised to become even more lucrative and renowned than ever, Jilbert’s focus is on making something out of nothing.
For years he has salvaged stuff meant for one thing, knowing that with a little bit of vision and a lot of hard work, that same stuff can be transformed into something new—maybe even unrecognizable.
This is what lights Jilbert’s fire. He doesn’t say so here in the middle of this warehouse at the dawn of what cynics might call a moon shot, but this is exactly why he’s in Baton Rouge and not New York or even New Orleans anymore. Baton Rouge is going to change, and he wants to be a part of that.
“I want my legacy to be that I created a safe haven for artists and that we showed everyone that artists are a gift to the world,” Jilbert says. “And I want to do that in the capital of the state that I love. It’s time for Baton Rouge.”