Joel Michael Smith: artist, teacher and coach

Students at Luther Burbank High School learn ceramics from a proud man


Joel Michael Smith will be presenting an art show on June 10, from 6-8 p.m. at Delta Breeze Records, 1715 10th Street. Smith’s art is rooted in painting, drawing and woodburning with inspiration from nature and ancient art techniques.

My Than, a second-generation Vietnamese-American student, never did much art. That was before Luther Burbank High School. But her art at the Operation Project and Defend show last year demanded attention: The Angry Creamsicle atop a globe, arms outstreched to stop immigrants. Than took first place at the show. The piece sold. “Seeing her face light up that someone wanted to buy it—watching that is why I’m a teacher,” Joel Michael Smith says. The show at Sol Collective is a staple for Smith’s students, who produced immigration-related works and defended them before real judges and lawyers. Smith is in his fourth year teaching seniors ceramics at the South Sac school. He’s also helping students create a city-funded mural of a “cultural tree,” to showcase the school’s diversity; there are Tongan, Hmong, black and Latino students at Burbank.

So, how did you come to teach art?

After art school, I was over L.A., so I moved to an island in Washington where I farmed and put on puppet shows with artists. After that, I was out of money so I came back to Sacramento and never left; it is the vortex [laughs]. I fell into teaching. I was in a mandala class, cutting collages, and was offered a job at a charter school. Eventually, I became a long-term middle-school sub. It was amazing; the kids were so hungry to learn to draw. I had 180 kids—every single one of them wanted to learn. That’s what inspired me to teach high school. My personal art aims to capture the felt-sense of people. I might not get every proportion correct, but the feeling that someone can be captured with marks on a page—it amazes me. In teaching, I focus on discovery. I want them to discover how much talent and skill and amazing things they have inside them.

Have students been more politically active since the election?

Definitely. I have a lot of students who were scared about what was going to happen and still are. I have students who would qualify for DACA and their future is up in the air. One of my student’s parents was forced to begin the deportation process. One of my soccer players, his mom just got her papers to be legal—he’s the sweetest, nicest kid. His dad lives in Mexico. Sometimes, because they’re in such hard situations, they are the most mature. Some kids are helping raise three kids at home. Then I have kids who are typical high school boys in the same room—so it’s a balance.

Why does representation matter in art?

For the kids, it’s a big part of their identity. They’re really curious what race I am [white, Italian]. Some of our Tongan students and African-American students bond like brothers here, like they grew up together. The real asset at Burbank is all those cultures overlapping and mixing in a pretty friendly way.

What else do students make art about?

Political and social ideas, along with everything you deal with in high school. One of my Hmong students made a piece about heartbreak [Smith grabs a ceramic box with a hand sticking up, a heart portrayed as a lock and a key beside]. He realized no matter what he did, he wouldn’t get the key to his ex-girlfriend’s heart again. Another student did a wall with a family coming to America, with an American family on one side and a desert on the other, with the Muslim [crescent] and Mexican flag symbols together.

A lot of our kids in poverty draw in their free time. They develop this creativity that many don’t value. Another student, from Pakistan, made this [a ceramic artwork with two figures, a flag, stars and fireworks]. He got a full ride to Chico and was our valedictorian.

There have been a few instances of racism in Sacramento high schools over the last year. What’s the atmosphere at Burbank?

The things my kids go through just getting back and forth to school has blown my mind. Burbank has a really supportive, caring staff. Most of the teachers have been here 20 years. Our principal, Jim Peterson, is into restorative justice and is really supportive. Occasionally, there are fights, but it’s usually very peaceful. One incident shades Burbank forever. [TK] I’ve known a handful of students who were shot. But 99 percent of students are nice and happy and just trying to figure out how to be adults. All of these kids push through and work hard every day. We went on a camping trip, where teachers drove and we brought our families. None of the students let my wife do any dishes.

It’s crazy to see our kids messed with. [One boy] had special needs and was beat up walking home since his hands were in his pockets, and they taunted him, “What’s in your pockets?” He came to school the next day and said, tears in his eyes, “There’s nothing that will keep me from going to school.” Those are the kids you do it for. Now, he’s in the Marines. The difference in kids here is when I walk around, they look me in the eye and say, “Hi, Mr. Smith.”