First published: Summer 2021

Wesley Willis (1963–2003) was a firm fixture in Chicago’s outsider art and underground music scenes. Initially beloved by just the alternative, bohemian set, of late his work has become more widely appreciated by art and music fans alike. In particular, demand for his ballpoint drawings of Chicago has increased dramatically in recent years.

 


Portrait of the artist, c. 1992, photo: Carla Winterbottom

Born in 1963 in Chicago, Willis had an unsettled early life. His parents had a troubled relationship and were separated, and he and his siblings spent time in several foster homes. Willis found some stability in one particular home in Phoenix, Illinois, where he was raised by an “aunt” who was loving and supportive.

 

Area Skyline of Chicago, c. 1996, ballpoint pen and marker on board, approx. 41 x 28 in. / 104 x 71 cm

In his twenties – following an incident with his mother’s boyfriend who robbed and threatened him – Willis was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He began to hear voices in his head and had other maladies and tics, many of which contributed to the art and the music he went on to create in his too-short life. He had a savant-like memory and could recall all the buildings of his downtown Chicago neighbourhood – their history and other information – and draw them from any angle, with everything oriented correctly.

 


The Chicago Skyline, Wells, Wentworth 51st (McDonald's), c. 1990, ballpoint pen and marker on board, approx. 41 x 28 in. / 104 x 71 cm

He spent his days at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). It was easy for him to get there as it was just a few blocks away from where he lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, the public housing project in the Bronzeville neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago.

At 8.30 each morning, he would wait for art historian Rolf Achilles, or George Danforth, the former Dean of Architecture at IIT. They would get him a coffee and set him up in an office where he could draw, and later on use the Yamaha keyboard that they bought to keep him further engaged. 

by Aron Packer

 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #108.

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