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Beyond the Visual

Steve Bracci

I connect to the world through my fingertips.
They click away on these black plastic keys reaching forward to a moment in a future when you will read this. Just a mouse click away is my e-mail, online shopping for a plane ticket, online banking to pay for it, Facebook friend updates incessantly pouring in, sites and links stretching to infinity. So much information pouring in, so much power to access it. The digital universe connecting me to blahblahblahblahblahblahBlah BlahBLAhBLAHBLAH!BLAH!! So much noise.

Am I connected to the world? Or separated from it by a digital fence?

Bill Willis remembers connection, how as a kid growing up in Florida he’d go out in the woods looking for snakes and, when he found one, connection: He’d freeze, the snake would freeze, their eyes locked on each other.

“The two of you try to size each other up. There’s a rightness to the moment—confronting a living presence. It happened recently at the river. A big Southern water snake came up out of the water and looked at me and I looked at him, sizing each other up.” It’s a moment of total alertness, total presence.

IN HIS ART, Willis is always looking for that snake.

The Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at GRU since 2010, Willis believes art is all about awareness. “I tell my students the most important thing you can do as a creative person and artist is work on being attentive and being aware.”  That’s incredibly hard to do. Usually the world that reaches us has been filtered through others’ eyes and ears and minds.

“I don’t take things for granted. I want to be aware. Most people buy the ongoing spin, the latest opinion. I try to go further and figure it out for myself. It all starts with taking a moment to be attentive.” He leans forward in his chair. “Like right now, feeling my butt on this chair, feeling my elbows on the arm rests, listening to the fan in the heater, being visually aware of what’s all around me, aware of my thoughts.”

“Wildness is a state of mind as much as it is something out there.”

IT'S THE KIND OF AWARENESS  that used to be required for survival, and still is required for the survival of creativity. “There’s the famous Thoreau quote: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ Wildness is a state of mind as much as it is something out there. Wildness is a central part of being creative, of being free. What does wild mean to an animal? It means being cunning—to be able to eat, to find shelter, to avoid predators or to find prey. Wildness is about being attentive, being aware.”

Willis, not surprisingly, is drawn to what he calls “primal art,” the kind of art ancient hunters made on the walls of caves, the sacred images and forms ancient worshipers created in their attentiveness to the world they could see and the world beyond it that they could feel. And in making his own art, Willis claws his way down and back to something like that primal attentiveness.

Willis seeks those forms and images that have that  mysterious energy...It’s an intuitive process for him, working a canvas until the image achieves what  he calls “a living presence.”

IT'S A JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY.  When he starts a painting, Willis doesn’t have an endpoint in view. “I jokingly say I work in the dark.” It’s an intuitive process for him, working a canvas until the image achieves what he calls “a living presence.”

“In a way, the images find me. I love the Chinese notion that paintings paint you as much as you paint paintings. It’s true. I’ll give you an example. I was doing paintings, very busy, lots of zigzags, then I’d scrape and simplify. I scraped everything out, only one was left, a sort of mouth and tail. Intuitively I pushed the image and it became a snake biting its tail. Later the curator of the show where it was hanging came along and said, ‘Oh Bill, that’s an Ouroboros.’ I said ‘What’s an Ouroboros?’ I looked it up. It’s the snake biting its tail in all kinds of ancient literature and art. It represents the divine creative energy of existence. So I figured I was on the right path.

“When I work I’m constantly pushing images, scraping out images, redoing images. I move back and forth between simple and complex, calm and chaotic.  The moving back and forth between opposites is usually where something happens. The image eventually presents itself to me. In its simplest terms, the creativity in art is being in motion. Being alive is being in motion. The ‘living presence’ means the art is in motion.”

Willis walks along the wall of his studio where his paintings hang, stylized images of bowls and antlers and hide shapes and piled rocks, all in muted earth tones. “This one has that living presence,” he says studying one. He points to another. “This one has a long way to go. I don’t know where it’s going yet, I just know it’s very important.”

A SCULPTOR FRIEND who liked to make provocative pronouncements once told Willis, “There’s nothing visual about visual art,” which seemed a ridiculous thing to say. But a month or two later Willis visited an exhibit of Oceanic Art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was late afternoon when he saw a sculpture. “It had this pulse about it, I was feeling energy from it. I closed my eyes and even more I felt that energy, it had such a presence. That’s when I realized what my friend was talking about. There’s something more than visual in good art.”

Willis seeks those forms and images that have that mysterious energy. For example, in many of Willis’s paintings there is a bowl. This image is based on early ceramic tea bowls from Korea and Japan. “Those things really are alive. It’s hard to believe until you stand in front of them and feel it. Some of these small tea bowls have that living presence of stone the size of Stonehenge. I decided to try to paint them, to see if I could mimic what they were able to capture. It’s not about the image but the energy it emits.”

Willis’s series of tea bowls slides into images of Buddhist beggar bowls. Buddhist monks believe the bowl must be empty and clean before you can get any benefit from it. “You must cleanse yourself of self, hang ups and biases, then things come to you,” Willis explains.

That’s what he tries for in making art. “You make yourself an empty vessel, then art comes to you. So I do that.” He performs a ritual, writing Om Tat Sat, a Sanskrit proclamation of God’s presence, on the back of all his work. “I pay tribute to the muses or creative forces above or beyond any one person or artist.” Willis explains that he is not interested in religion—especially when it gets tangled up in dogma—but in the source of religion.

Thus the cross-like form in many of his paintings, suggesting both the Christian cross and the Hamsa from Hindu philosophy: the goose who is able to swim on the surface, dive to the depths or fly off to liberation. Hamsa is also a mantra, meaning I am that which I am.

Willis has won many grants, awards and fellowships, and his art is
displayed in some of the finest public collections in the country...

THAT WHICH IS BILL WILLIS IS, like all of us, a many-layered thing. His dad, an auto body mechanic, died before he was born. His grandfathers were a house painter and a carpenter—no artists in his family, working class through and through. His mom raised him outside of Tampa, but there were woods close by and lots of trips to a relative’s farm.

He inherited a knack for working with his hands and he loved fast cars. The closest he came to art was painting pinstripes on friends’ hot rods. In college he studied engineering, but an elective in drawing drew him into more art classes. To pay for his tuition he worked as assistant to an engineer at Anheuser-Busch watching over the bottling lines and piping, making mechanical drawings with straight edge and T-square. One day his boss pulled him aside and offered this fatherly advice: “You can be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer, but stay away from literature and that arty stuff.”

But it was too late. Willis had already been seduced by the arty stuff, sculpture first, then more and more painting, then Zen and Yoga, which influenced so many of the painters he studied. It took him seven years, but he finally graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in studio art. After a two-year stint in the Navy as a communications officer, he returned to the University of South Florida for an MFA in painting. A teaching job at the University of Maryland followed and a life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with his wife and two sons—one of whom is now a chef, the other a propulsion engineer with NASA.

Willis has won many grants, awards and fellowships, and his art is displayed in some of the finest public collections in the country, among them the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., the Tucson Museum of Art and art galleries at Yale University, the University of Maryland, Dickinson State University and Indiana University.

AUGUSTA PROVIDES HIM with lots of opportunities, welcome and unwelcome, to practice alertness. During February’s ice storm, he sat up all night listening to the trees pop and crash, and at 5 a.m. watched as one smashed through the roof into the kitchen. But way more pleasant opportunities to be alert to the natural world come as he rides his bike along the canal and river or the trails in the woods.

There, just minutes from the Summerville campus, he can be off the grid, off the city streets, unplugged from digital information, alert to encounters with the wild that lives there, maybe lock eyes with a snake sizing him from the river. Contact!

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