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Staying Power: Longtime Phoenix artist Joe Willie Smith on how the city has changed

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 1:11pm
Updated: Monday, December 11, 2023 - 12:10pm

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Last year, The Show series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow. 

A new series called Staying Power looks at people who have made Arizona their home — like Joe Willie Smith.

Smith has been a paid artist for nearly his entire life, from painting broken plates for his mother to sell, to doing graphic design for newspapers. Now he’s working on turning his studio into an art gallery with a performance space.

When Smith moved to Phoenix, it was a very different place than the one we know today.

Joe Willie Smith being interviewed by The Show
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Joe Willie Smith being interviewed by The Show's Lauren Gilger inside his Phoenix art studio.

"Phoenix was a very small town, very quiet. It was the population, I think when I moved here was a little bit over 200,000," said artist Joe Wilie Smith. "That was 1987.

When Smith moved to Phoenix about 35 years ago, it was a very different place than the one we know today.

"And so, I mean, back then the freeway, the I-10 was not connected completely across the country. Phoenix was the one place where you had to get off of the I-10 and take a detour to get back on again," he said. "And when they first completed it, nobody used it. I used to jog from my house down the freeway to get to work, and there were no cars."

Smith isn't from the Valley of the Sun. He was was born in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1949.

"But my family moved to Milwaukee in the early '50s, and that was part of the what they call the 'black migration' from the south to northern cities."

He says art was always part of his life.

"My mother was very creative," he said. "She encouraged me all the time and, you know, had me make painted plates and pot holders and paper flowers, and she would take those to work and sell them and make a little money and give me a little bit. And I was helping to support the household.

From there, he was off and running. He went to college to study graphic design — it was called commercial art back then. And his first jobs were designing for groups like the Black Panthers. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was right in the middle of it.

Glass on a shelf
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Glass inside Joe Willie Smith's art studio in Phoenix.

"I did book covers for anti-apartheid in South Africa. I did Jesse Jackson's Midwest campaign. I did posters for War, the band and, you know, Chaka Khan, it just goes on and on. I just happen to always be in the right place."

He even did work for Muhammad Ali's hair products line.

"Yes, he had a product line called Knockout. And I designed the labels and the logo for his beauty supply company," Smith said.

Eventually, Smith transitioned into newspapers. He won a lot of awards for his work and found himself with an offer from a paper in a place he'd never really considered before: Phoenix, Arizona.

So, why did he choose Phoenix?

"Because the Arizona Republic was one of the few papers making a commitment to digital graphics. And I knew that, basically, my career would be over if I continued doing everything by hand," said Smith.

And as mentioned before, the Phoenix the late 1980s was not what it is today — it might have been better.

"It was extremely quiet. I loved it back then," he said. You could hike out in the desert and just never see anybody. The air was extremely pure back then. Yeah. So it, it's a different place, you know, nights were cooler."

And the art scene in that small-town version of Phoenix? He loved it.

"Scottsdale was like the hub, and everyone wanted to be in Scottsdale, including me," he said. "Every first Friday at the art walk in Scottsdale, man. We — just thousands of people walking Marshall Way and going to all the galleries. The galleries all had huge like hors d'oeuvres set up and wine ... it was a party. It's always something happening. People were buying art like crazy."

Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Joe Willie Smith inside his Phoenix art studio.

It was around that time that Smith started using found objects in his work and creating found instruments, what he calls "sonic sculptures."

"I call them sonic sculptures because I think of them as sculpture that makes music," Smith said. "And so I designed some of these to make music on their own. I have my bamboo outside wired with microphones, so that when the wind blows, you hear the sound of, of the wind going through the bamboo."

Inside his Phoenix studio recently, Smith reflected on his role in the art scene here after having been here for so long and stayed.

"I'm kind of a, I don't know, I guess I'm a catalyst in a way," said Smith. You probably notice that you don't see a lot of art that relates to my race or my culture and it's because I've done it a lot in the past. But I also don't think that art should be relegated to the race you are or to the gender you are. So, I think I've been an example to artists of all races that you don't have to be pigeonholed by who you are or what people think you are. To me showing them new discoveries and letting people know that I found this in the trash — I made it from trash. You can do that, too. And so that is really my primary concern with my art is letting other people know that it's possible to do it, too. Because, you know, I'm not special, you know, we all are."

A piece of art inside Joe Willie Smith
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
A sculpture inside Joe Willie Smith's art studio in Phoenix.

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