As a kid, Joseph “JoJo” Jilbert never waited around for Santa. He started building toys in his own workshop in the first grade.
“My toys have just gotten bigger,” says the 59-year-old artist.
And it’s always Christmas morning when he hears the clang of metal falling into the box he keeps by his front door. It means someone has left him a small present on his Hebert Street porch.
“When I heard that, I say, ‘Thank you, God,’” Jilbert says, his smile stretched wide across his face. “I know that someone has left me some metal. To them, it’s just scraps, but for me, it’s Christmas.”
He’s always thinking about the possibilities, the way he’ll use some of the metal in his studios to rework the exterior of the House of Jamba, the Government Street restaurant he co-owns with Andy and Judy Williams.
The new exterior will look much like Jilbert’s sculpted “toys” standing outside the restaurant, bordering nearby Hebert Street, where Jilbert lives behind the restaurant.
Technically, they’re welded sculptures.
“I don’t sketch anything ahead of time,” Jilbert explains of his process. “The metal tells me what the sculpture is going to be.”
Making art is his passion and he pursues it every day at his Capitol Arts Studios in the former GN Gonzalez building on Choctaw Drive. Jilbert controls some 78,000 square feet of space in the warehouse, where he works and operates an artists’ colony.
“I believe in producing, and I produce art every day,” Jilbert says. “But these guys (other artists) don’t produce. They’re not interested in it.”
That thought baffles Jilbert, who has been unable to think of much else since elementary school. He and his 17 siblings were living on his parents’ farm in Hayti, Missouri, at the time. Money was scarce, so Santa never came calling.
Jilbert finally quit waiting for the jolly old elf and started creating his own toys after studying those of his classmates.
“I would hold the toy, looked at it really close, feel it with my hands and gave it back,” Jilbert says. “Then, I would go home and start making my toy. Then I would add things to it. And then the next day, I would say, ‘Look, my toy has more.’”
He sold his first work of art at age 6.
“I was walking into school when the Catholic priest, Father Ellender, said, ‘Little JoJo, come here.’ I thought I was in trouble. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I was wearing a cross that I’d made,” Jilbert recalls.
It was actually a crucifix crafted from copper wire, with Christ’s suffering detailed in his facial expression.
“He wanted to pay me $5 for it, but I saw that he had candy in his office. I told him that I wanted the candy, and I filled my pockets with it,” Jilbert says. “Then, I went to class and started handing out candy to all the kids. I thought I was the richest person in the world.”
Later teaching himself to weld, Jilbert graduated to sculptures, and some of the results stand around the House of Jamba and along Hebert Street.
There’s his “Medusa Mermaid,” with arms raised high, her tail offering a place to rest.
Mythical spirits, African warriors and robots fill the lot between his house and the restaurant.
“And this,” Jilbert says, stopping at his driveway, “is my masterpiece.”
The sculpture is a sea horse, standing at least 8 feet high, its small pieces of metal welded to end in a perfectly curled tail.
“Put your hand on his nose and look into his eyes, and you have a friend forever,” Jilbert says.
Again, he gives his wide smile. He loves talking about his work, always his priority even when the bills were being paid by other jobs — deejaying in New York or designing restaurant and concert space in New Orleans, the city he considers home and which becomes a part of every piece he crafts.
Into each sea horse or mermaid or towering Goliath goes five pieces of metal salvaged from New Orleans’ Katrina wreckage.
“Every sculpture has to have those pieces from Katrina,” he says. “I have a special pile of those pieces that will last me 40 years. I’ll never run out.”
His family moved to New Orleans when he was 8. After Katrina, he relocated to Vail, Colorado, then returned to his home state with a fiancee.
“I was trying to make my way back to New Orleans,” Jilbert says. “I started out in Breaux Bridge, where Circa 1857 discovered my work.”
Jilbert’s towering sculptures stood outside Circa 1857’s Government Street complex, which is where he got his first exposure in the Capital City. He has since become known as a “green artist,” helping the environment by creating art from materials headed for the trash heap.
He’s also become a friend to area school art programs.
“I was reading about how there was no money for school art programs, and I wanted to help,” Jilbert says. “The idea came to me in a dream, and I woke up and told my fiancee that I knew how I was going to do it.”
He started an “Art & Seek” program, where students bring in pieces of metal for an original Jilbert sculpture.
“My lucky number is five, and I asked them what their lucky numbers were,” Jilbert says. “Then I told them to bring in that many pieces of metal. I made a sculpture from it, and the school had a raffle at $10 a ticket. People could buy a chance to win a sculpture worth thousands for $10. Then after the raffle, the school would have money for their arts program.”
Dufrocq Elementary was the first school to benefit from the program. Other schools have since followed. Jilbert also has used this idea to raise money to send the Williams’ niece, Sadie Fontenot, to Los Angeles earlier this summer to further her acting career.
Now he’s focused on remodeling the House of Jamba, where two of his fish sculptures will form the gates to the courtyard entrance.
He’s positive he has enough metal to finish the job, but if he doesn’t, there’s always that clang outside his front door, signalling Christmas has come once again.