*This story originally appeared on DTLV.com on August 7, 2017.
Metal sculpture artist Jojo Jilbert has been living at the Gold Spike hotel for the past nine months. The downstairs bartender Will says he only knows a handful of regulars, even though he’s worked there for six years. But Jilbert, who occasionally comes down to the bar for a Coors Light (what he calls “Gatorade”) is hard not to notice.
“He looks like Raiden from Mortal Kombat,” says Tom Portanova, a Gold Spike resident. Portanova has a video of Jilbert wearing a rice farmer hat moving alone on the dance floor surrounded by flashing pink and blue lights. Hats are a staple of his wardrobe. Fedoras are hung in a waving line on his small studio hallway. The space is crowded with heavy, bulky sculptures, including a dancing blue Avatar that his social cat Lucy, who acts like a dog, uses as a perch to gaze out the window into the Gold Spike’s backyard.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Jilbert is a people-person. Spending most of his life in Louisiana, his personality goes beyond southern hospitality. “I got something. I don’t know what I got, but if I could bottle that and sell it to you, I would.” And most would be willing to purchase it. Taking a concentrated dose of the 61-year-old’s energy would be more effective than any red eye coffee or bathroom key bump. “Most artists are ADD,” he says.”I’m ADD, XYZ and WD40.”
Jilbert sold his first sculpture, a cross made out of extension cord wire, when he was 7 years old. “I took my shoelace off my left foot and wore it to school the next day. Father Allender, a Catholic priest, said, ‘Little Joe, where’d you get that?’…He took me to the office. I thought I was in trouble because I didn’t have my lace on.” Instead, Father Allender offered him $5 for his makeshift necklace, but little Joe bargained for the bowl of hard candy sitting on his desk. “I thought I was the richest kid in the world. I had all this candy … I went out and threw it to all the kids in school.”
But sculpting is more than a natural impulse to create. Jilbert is one of 18 children. “I was not born as a child, I was born as a work mule,” he says. “We chopped and picked cotton and all kinds of stuff—a huge farm. I was born in Missouri. Misery, I call it.” It was on the farm, Jilbert says, before he made the shoestring necklace, he was transported into an octahedron-shaped spaceship and scanned by aliens.
“I was picked up,” he says. It was the early ‘60s when Americans feared communism and Soviet spies. “My family said ‘The Russians took Jojo! The Russians took Jojo!” He describes the experience as lava lamp-like bubbles flowing quickly over his body. The aliens looked human but were completely white. Since the scanning, Jilbert says he has been revisited twice, once in Florida after a DJing gig, the other time at Caesars Palace, signaling that he is in the right place. “It completely changed me,” he says. Before he was always quiet, always in the background. After the abduction is when he says his vibrant personality surfaced and he began to sculpt.
Since then he started collecting scrap metal and transforming it into sea horses, Matadors, mermaids and warriors. “[My family] would not let me take the trash out because it was not trash to me. I’d put that trash in the front yard, spread it out, and make things out of it. I didn’t care what it was.” His strategy for obtaining materials has stayed the same: taking unwanted metal from others. After moving from Missouri in his 20s, Jilbert spent most of his time in Baton Rouge where he sculpted, owned restaurants, DJed and started the Art and Seek program that benefits school art programs.
Jillbert has been working out of Larry’s Towing off Blue Diamond Road, outside in the heat in a welding mask and thick leather gloves for the last eight months. A welder and plasma cutter sit next to a trailer covered in car parts, screws and scrap metal that, to Jilbert, are horns or breasts or tails or navels. His experience is apparent through the hundreds of welding scars covering his arms and the way he treats a hand-held cut-off saw and hunks of metal as if they were scrapbook scissors and construction paper. He works there for free and occasionally welds something for the guys in the tow yard.
In July, Jilbert traveled to Yelm, Washington to build a 20-foot spaceship sculpture for a UFO festival. Jilbert’s friend and sound engineer Baron Bujol, who knew Jillbert from Baton Rouge and brought him out to Las Vegas, was his connection to UFOFest. The festival takes place at Triad Theater, which is owned and operated by Calamity Jayne, the owner of the famous Las Vegas music venue in the ‘80s.
“Jilbert said he would love to come up here because this is a very spiritually and cosmically aware community. Many are into ufology, new quantum physics and metaphysics,” Jayne says. “This is a magnet to Jojo. He is a very intuitive and passionate artist and totally in tune with this type of stuff. This is a very diverse town of extreme talent and he would fit right in with them.”
Jilbert says he knows his creations are not coming from him but from the aliens. A similar sentiment is shared by many artists who say when they are in a flow state, it’s as though something else is typing the keys or moving the paintbrush. But he doesn’t know why his creations and paranormal experience are connected. He is hoping to find out. He challenges skeptics to come hang out with him. “The impossible is possible,” he says.
Jojo Jilbert’s work can be seen at Therapy gastropub on Fremont East.