Joe Butts: Rising from the Wreckage

Artist Joseph “Joe” Butts knows firsthand what it’s like to crash and burn, but he also knows it’s possible to rise burnished and better from the ashes. He channeled all of those feelings into a behemoth, show-stopping sculpture, The Phoenix.

“It’s a symbol of hope, and renewal and rebirth. I think that resonates with a lot of people. I know it resonated with me. I’ve been through (difficult) things in my professional life and my personal life … but the idea of hope and renewal was (my) inspiration,” said Butts,’98, a Detroit native and first-generation MSU graduate.

man in sunglasses and denim clothing posing with his falcon-like sculpture made of metal work
Artist Joseph Butts and his sculpture, The Phoenix

Last fall, he entered the 10-foot tall, 1,800-pound scrap-metal bird— boasting a 17-foot wingspan —in ArtPrize, the internationally revered Grand Rapids-based art competition.

Some 500,000 art lovers flocked to the weeks-long contest. At its culmination, they honored the 3-D big bird with a people’s choice award.

He started the 18-month project by scouring junkyards, flea markets, antique shops and thrift stores for suitable materials. Working in a studio outside his Oxford home, he used welding skills he’d picked up as an MSU art major.

It was like a big jigsaw puzzle, Butts said.

And every piece is captivating. Look closely and you’ll see the bird’s wheelbarrow chest, carved wooden beak, giant marble eyes, 300 custom- cut steel feathers and dozens of circular saw blades. Embellishments include license plates, small bells, horseshoes and more.

From start to finish, creating the sculpture was cathartic, Butts said.

It embodies his victory as a twenty something over his greatest personal battle—alcoholism. “When you’re at that … visceral level of existence, you don’t really have any self-worth. You’re just kind of down and out. Art wasn’t even on my radar,” he said.

When you’re at that … visceral level of existence, you don’t really have any self-worth. You’re just kind of down and out. Art wasn’t even on my radar.

Butts spent a couple of years under addiction’s spell before experiencing a “moment of clarity.” It was then that he decided to stop drinking.

He went back to college, became a high school art teacher, and felt a resurgence in his creativity and ambition. He also met his wife, Lisa. She encouraged him to take his art to the next level and focus on it professionally.

In 2012, he turned an outbuilding on his rural property into a studio and began entering his mixed-media 3-D works in art shows.

Four years later, he decided it was time to share the ebullience and strength he’s enjoyed during his 17 years of sobriety.

“The Phoenix went together so easily for me,” he said. “It was like writing my (life) story—rising up, wings spread, just feeling free of all this negative stuff .”

Soon, the avian sculpture will also take flight. Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums and Entertainment snared The Phoenix and the sculpture is expected to be displayed in one of their venues.

Like the artist, the sculpture is ready to soar.

Written by: Sydney Naseef, ’20

This article appeared originally in the MSU Alumni Magazine – Spring 2019.

Photo courtesy of Joe Butts