Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Territory Ahead: Joe Smith’s Uncommon Creations

An Oklahoma craftsman and his unquestionable art



East of the Black Kettle National Grassland, near the county lines of Custer, Dewey and Roger Mills, up and down and up and down a hilly dirt road, is the longtime ranch of Joe and Leah Smith.

It is far enough west in Oklahoma that it looks you might be in the Texas Panhandle, or maybe eastern New Mexico. The Smiths’ picture window frames a horizon rippled by an ancient butte.

There is not a neighbor in sight. But there is no lack of company: Their sons pop in between trips back and forth as they tend to the family’s land, and a caregiver keeps an eye out and cooks up lunch favorites such as fresh livers and gizzards. The Smiths also get visits from further afield. Europe. Costa Rica. Arizona.

Some of the visitors are friends they’ve made over the course of their 63-year marriage. But others are strangers – at least when they arrive. They travel down Hill Creek Road to meet the 89-year-old rancher with the common name and uncommon creations.

Joe Ellis Smith is among the pantheon of self-taught Oklahoma folk artists creating larger-than-life works, including Ed Galloway (1880-1962) and his concrete totem poles in Foyil; Hugh Davis (1909-1990) and his iconic Blue Whale of Catoosa; and Jim Powers (1934-2006) and his junkyard animals in Gage.

Smith’s outdoor gallery is the most extensive and least accessible of them all, found only by venturing off the paved road. His altered farm fences, towering horseshoe trees and painted kachinas, bobbing roadrunners and rotating depictions of spheres, an airplane and an angry tornado, are the result of 60 years of collecting and more than three decades of construction.“Unless you’re there in person, you can’t see the magnitude of what he’s done,” says longtime friend and fellow blacksmith Bob Kennemer, a member of the museum board in nearby Elk City who has watched the Smith sculptures evolve. “I’ve been up there a hundred times, and still see something new every visit.”

The fence line that follows the rolling red-dirt road transforms just before the Smith place. Within the metal panels – each 16 feet long and four feet tall – is a flotsam and jetsam of relics from the farm: tools and bits of machinery silhouetted in artful symmetry and welded into a frieze of suspended animation.


Wrenches are welded between the spokes of century-old hay-rake wheels. Horseshoes and teeth from long-forgotten threshing machines are frozen in place next to sprockets and cogs, marching in formation with pliers and tractor seats, hammers and saws, pulleys and bridle bits, twisted augers, angled axes and open-jawed tongs.

One intricate section is joined to another, and then another, creating a corridor of framed metal friezes lining the quarter-mile long driveway, beginning at the mailbox that’s marked by a 44-foot-tall saguaro cactus crafted of pipes painted sea-foam green.

On the way up the drive, high above the fence line and balanced atop upturned axles and painted poles, is a parade of lucky charms – a heart, crescent moon, horseshoe and five-pointed star – maybe 15 feet across, made of welded horseshoes that create a feel more lace than iron.

The totems are interspersed with enormous weathervanes wearing whirligig collars of radiating shovels and wheelbarrows, a steampunk amalgam of Dr. Seuss-meets-Mad Max angled to catch the wind and spin above the prairie.

“Joe is very unusual,” Kennemer says. “There’s not many people who can do what he does. I can’t say there’s no one else around doing what he does. But if there is, I haven’t met him.”

Smith will walk the property pointing out highlights of his work, but refuses to call them art. He concedes of the installation little more than a modest: “You’re not going to see another place like this in the state of Oklahoma.”

 

Joe Ellis Smith was born about a mile away from where he lives now, south and west of Leedey, 90 years ago Sept. 1. His family stayed on the land through the Dust Bowl and Depression, using a horse and mules on their tractor-less farm.

“Everybody was so poor. Everyplace. Nobody had nothin’,” he says. “Could buy this land up here, some of it sold for a dollar an acre. Nobody had any money. The people up here north of us – on those hills up there – it never did rain and they never could get their seed to come up. They left for California. But we lived on a place like this, with a creek. The water would get all over the bottom and irrigate it. But it’d run off the hills up there.”

He and his brother and sister – both now in their 90s and living nearby – walked or rode their horse into Texmo for elementary school, and finished high school in Harmon. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps upon graduation in 1944, training in San Diego but not being shipped out in the waning days of World War II.

After returning home, he bought a used Caterpillar D8, spending long hours in the bulldozer’s open cab, through wind and ice and heat, building terraces and ponds for farmers from the Texas state line to Clinton, from Elk City north to Camargo.

“I call myself self-educated through hard work, that’s all we knew,” he says. “We bought a bulldozer, and we run that. But you know, that’s all artistic work too, if you do a good, smooth job in a limited amount of time, don’t work forever on it. Cause when somebody’s paying the bill, they didn’t want you goofing off. So you worked all the time.”

The Smiths raised two boys and a girl, and built their new ranch house on the hill in 1973. As Joe dialed back on his work schedule in the late 1980s, he found more time to experiment in his shop, soldering and welding items he had collected in his travels and at farm auctions.


By 1989, he had assembled the first of his farm-tool fence panels, now numbering more than 100, and installed it on his property. “When I first started, I’d put a number on ’em. I got to 14 or 15, and then I forgot my numbers.”

He likes talking about the numbers and dimensions of his work but is reluctant to say much about the vision behind his pieces. For his latest big project, a half-scale biplane, the horseshoes in the wings alone number “seven across times 24 long times four – top and bottom,” a total of 1,344 horseshoes, not including those needed for the rest of the body.

But calling what he does art? He’s not buying it.

The fact that his massive sculptures of a longhorn and a buffalo are front and center at the Route 66 Museum complex in Elk City, and that a couple of his smaller works and fence sections are featured at the Farm & Ranch Museum, pulls no weight.

“You want to talk about a piece of artwork?” And he will show pieces by others, walking below his home’s cedar-beamed ceiling, pulling down a hand-crafted ax, turning on a light over an oil painting of a Western scene, pointing out the detail in a display case of stamped Navajo bracelets, fingering the indigo dye in his collection of vintage saddle blankets, unlocking the cabinet of pieces of antique Pueblo pottery. “This is art. What I do is nothing.”


Others disagree.

“He didn’t learn. He wasn’t taught,” Kennemer says. “I would say he was born with it. He’s so creative. Just sees it in his mind, and can build it. Joe is the most talented man I know, as far as dreaming things up and then being able to build it.”

With the winter temperature well below freezing, Smith goes out to the shop, its walls lined with meticulously arranged tractor seats and hundreds of vintage tools, and cranks up the heat to get in a few more hours of work. He is slower than he used to be, but keeps moving.

He is tickled – but genuinely puzzled – that the specialist he sees for his lung cancer asked him for a small sculpture. “Why would my cancer doctor in Oklahoma City want me to make him a flower, about that tall? Put it in his windowsill to look at. A fancy doctor like that.” The doctor conveyed good news during his last checkup, and scheduled the next visit for three months down the line.

In the meantime, Smith is pondering starting a smaller sculpture, a jackrabbit. It might be about 30 inches long, something to keep inside. This time, he will avoid the mistakes he says he made with the roadrunner, when he may have snipped the metal tail feathers too short for his liking. But then he shrugs.

“All you can do is the best you can do. And that is it. You can’t go beyond your capabilities. And my capabilities don’t run far enough to suit me.

“The work – I enjoy the work. What I don’t like is all the thinkin’ and figurin’ and worryin’, and you go to bed at night and get all that crap in your head so you can’t go to sleep. ‘What am I going to do next? How I’m going to change that?’ It just circulates. That’s just me. I guess everybody’s got the same trouble.” 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »You Might Like

The Festival of the Arts’ Legacy

Arts Council OKC director Peter Dolese retraces the origins and expansion of the week-long celebration of creativity that is the Festival of the Arts.

The Natural Touch for Self-Care

Natural products from lotions to fragrances in conscientious self-care that are perfect for a season of renewal.

An Oklahoma Story in Stone

Nearly 150 years after Sophia Pitchlynn died in what was then Indian Territory, her gravestone still stands silent vigil in Garland Cemetery.

Add your comment:
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

April 2019

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Celebrate Easter with a trip to Andy Alligator’s Fun Park! On Saturday and Sunday, get $5 off an All-Day Pass with our Eggcellent Easter Special. All-Day Passes include Go-Karts,...

Cost: $23.95

Where:
Andy Alligator's Fun Park & Water Park
3300 Market Pl
Norman, OK  73072
View map »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

The OSU Symphony Orchestra will conclude the 2018-19 season with Schubert's monumental and majestic Symphony No. 9 in C ("The Great"). The concert opens with The European Anthem,...

Cost: General Admission: $10; Students & Seniors: $7

Where:
Oklahoma State University Department of Music
132 Seretean Ctr
Stillwater, OK  74078
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma State University Department of Music
Telephone: 405.744.6133
Contact Name: Dr. Thomas Dickey
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Potbelly Sandwich Shop is giving back to the local neighborhood with Feed Your Smile, a fundraiser supporting Concordia Life Care Community.  Show this flyer on your smartphone or...

Cost: Free

Where:
Potbelly Sandwich Shop
8500 N Rockwell Ave
OKC, OK  73132
View map »


Sponsor: Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Telephone: 405-792-5112
Contact Name: Katy Fabrie
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

"Deliberately silencing the internal chatter and not overthinking. Conscious, but not over-trying. With this approach, things just seem to happen—it’s where all the substance is...

Cost: Free

Where:
Individual Artists of Oklahoma
706 W. Sheridan Ave.
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Individual Artists of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.412.2541
Contact Name: David Smith

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Shop over 200 vendors at this indoor event with everything from vintage furniture, retro and mid-century decor to handmade goods, antiques, industrial finds and architectural salvage!

Cost: $5 at the door, 13 and under free

Where:
Heritage Place
2829 S. MacArthur
Oklahoma City, OK  73128
View map »


Sponsor: Junk Hippy
Contact Name: Kristen Grandi
Website »

More information

A Sporting Chance will host the 25th annual Track and Field Meet at Branson Junior High in Branson, Missouri. A Sporting Chance provides year-round sports and recreation programs designed for those...

Where:
Branson Junior High
263 Buccaneer Boulevard
Branson, MO  65616
View map »


Sponsor: A Sporting Chance
Telephone: 404-314-2188
Contact Name: Hannah Schachinger

More information

RexFest will feature an interactive art exhibit called a luminarium created by Architects of Air. From April 25-28, visitors can walk through the inflatable sculpture, which disperses light and...

Cost: $8 for kids; $10 for adults; $30 for families of four

Where:
Together Square
400 W Sheridan Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Delta Dental

More information

This one-day festival is rooted in the printing of large-scale woodblocks carved by local Oklahoma artists. We bring in a 5-ton steamroller and print pre-carved blocks throughout the day on Tyvek...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Contact Name: Evan
Website »

More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles - both “over there” and on the home front - in helping the Allies win World War I. The National Cowboy & Western...

Cost: $12.50

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
View map »


Telephone: 405.478.2250
Contact Name: Jenni
Website »

More information

The Annual Mentorship Exhibition features pieces from Oklahoma City high school students that visit the Artspace studio each month. Throughout the duration of the program, the students engage with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace at Untitled
1 NE 3rd st
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
View map »


Sponsor: Artspace at Untitled
Telephone: 405-815-9995
Website »

More information

Andy Alligator's is celebrating teachers! On Saturday and Sunday, teachers with a valid ID will receive a FREE All-Day Pass and $5 off for each family member! An All-Day Pass includes...

Cost: Teachers receive a FREE All-Day Pass; family members get $5 off

Where:
Andy Alligator's Fun Park & Water Park
3300 Market Pl
Norman, OK  73072
View map »

More information

America’s largest interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: $59.95

Where:
The Skirvin Hilton
1 Park Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: The Dinner Detective
Telephone: 866.496.0535
Website »

More information

Get a sample of the nightlife of Spain at Tulsa Botanic Garden's "Viva La Vida." The Garden is bringing star chef Jamie Bissonnette (Toro restaurants in Boston, NYC, Bangkok and...

Cost: $250

Where:
Tulsa Botanic Garden
3900 Tulsa Botanic Dr
Tulsa, OK  74127
View map »


Sponsor: Tulsa Botanic Garden
Telephone: 918-289-0330
Contact Name: Lori Hutson
Website »

More information

2nd annual gathering of "The Big Lebowksi" fans at The Dude Abides OKC All Oklahoma City Urban Achievers, Abiders and Coen Brothers fans are invited to join us at Fassler Hall OKC and...

Cost: Free, contests have entry fee

Where:
Fassler Hall
421 NW 10th
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
View map »


Sponsor: Revolve Productions
Telephone: 405.810.6977
Contact Name: Tobi Coleman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags