Meet James A. Willis, Gibson's inaugural Artist in Residence and our artist of the month. Read about James' work, including his handmade instruments and motorcycles, his inspirations, and why he hides a pair of skeleton gloves under his rug. We had a blast meeting with him at his Nashville studio loft and look forward to collaborating in the future. But for now, enjoy these words. All photos by Emily Quirk.
It’s late afternoon and we’re on our way to find James Willis’ art studio in the industrial yet trendy Marathon Village, a small block of old factory warehouses turned fancy live/work spaces in Nashville. “Look for the door with the skull on it, across the street from the museum,” James yells out over the phone. We stop in Garage Coffee Co. to grab some liquid energy before we set out to find the door with a skull. I ask the baristas if they know who James Willis is. I’m met with blank stares and a shoulder-shrug, in my mind thinking who doesn’t know the man who makes art above the skull-door?
I call James again, because I’m terrible with directions, and see a man standing on a stoop waving his arms just beyond an old, rusted car. “Oh! I see you!” waving back from inside the coffee shop. He pretends to see me, while the baristas continue staring blankly. I motion to Lee and Emily, as they stand to the side watching all of this go down, and we all make our way to the other side of the street, heading toward the building across from the museum.
James Willis is an artist from New York. Originally a southern boy, growing up in Bainbridge, GA, he moved to Nashville about five years ago to work with Gibson as their first ever Artist in Residence. There, he designed custom guitars and cases inspired by his own works and heroes, including New York City, Edgar Allen Poe, and Revolutionary War soldiers. We had to meet him.
James opens the door to his art studio/loft, motioning for us to come inside, while Winnie, his dog, curiously introduces herself. He apologizes for the mess, letting us know that a film crew was just there. We pile in, single file, and notice an incredible motorcycle that James built from old, rusted parts, “The headlight is off a Model T Ford,” James says. I spot a hand-tooled raven on the leather seat, painted feathers down the body, and he hands me a set of keys complete with a handmade leather key-chain in the shape of a heart, “When I set out to build this thing for Edgar Allen Poe, I imagined what it would look like if he lived with it. So there are little references all over it.” Much like his Poe-inspired trio of Gibson guitars, James’ motorcycle is unique and artfully cool.
“I don’t even know if I’ll ever do another motorcycle again. That’s the bad thing about working the way that I do, is that I love to find new things to push myself towards, but sometimes I’ll hit a wall with it. If the next step is becoming some great motorcycle builder, it’s not a step that I want to take. It’s not about building a motorcycle, it’s about making something,” James explains. We quickly realize his desire for making is contagious. Everything around us has his personal touch. “I live off of what I make, off my art,” James says while leading us upstairs.
“That’s one of my New York paintings. So, that’s kind-of what I’m known for. That’s what brought me to Nashville, really. Gibson reached out to me. I was the first ever Artist in Residence,” recalls James. He came to Nashville for Gibson and didn’t want to leave, “I’ve just been doing a lot of different stuff since then. I worked on an artist residence basis for Tom Bedell who owns Breedlove guitars and designed for him. Last year, I lived with Zac [Brown] in Atlanta just doing stuff for him. He graciously supported me to make—all kinds—paintings, custom guitar cases, designing stuff for camp, I wrote the book. It’s all new for me.” James just finished his second book, a graphic novel, for Atlanta musician Zac Brown and is currently drawing up blueprints for art installations at Camp Southern Ground, Zac Brown's camp giving children of all abilities the opportunity to experience art and the outdoors. You can also find James' custom painted guitar cases at Carter Vintage in Nashville.
In Nashville, James has found new inspiration for his work, “I’m obsessed with power lines. In New York I was going off of water towers. I painted the city in all sorts of different ways but people always wanted a water tower. So, I think when I got down to Nashville I started doing power lines. I never thought about why I was doing that and I don’t get caught up in doing them exactly, I just let it happen.” Looking out of his loft window through the paned-glass, there are power lines criss-crossing from all directions. “A friend of mine asked me why I thought I did it. And I just answered him, the ‘Folly of Man.’ You see these gorgeous crazy sunsets and this wild sky—it’s weird—to me it draws a great difference in the picture of how much effort we go through to try to do things. They both need each other,” James explains.
That’s where his mind is. Thinking of the “Folly of Man” as we tip-toe around his handmade instruments and relics. All of James’ art and gadgets reflect one another; his motorcycle downstairs inspires a still-life on an easel upstairs, needing a new seat inspires him to experiment with hand-tooling a leather one, playing the guitar inspires him to build his own. It all may seem like carefully crafted, spontaneous efforts to fill a void, but, rather, each project builds off the other. “I like to get to the point where I’ve executed my thought but that I’m not executing somebody else’s idea of what my thought should be. You know? This is what I want to make. I’m trying to keep it sculpture,” James says of his handmade instruments.
“The adventure part of it definitely is what drives me. It’s not about acquiring stuff.” James says, his eyes wandering over to a painted pair of gloves in a glass case. We ask about them, “You don’t know the story about [these]?” he asks half-smirking, half-disbelief. We shake our heads. “Okay, good, I probably didn’t have to hide the actual pair,” as he lifts up the rug in his living room. “So, the thing is, those are the original pair, that I stole back” pointing to the painted gloves in the case. “Those are about twenty years old. I paint my own bones on my gloves. As the gloves start to get old, because they’re varnished, they bend at my knuckles. So they look crazy, creepy. So, all of a sudden, I’d be missing—I’d have two left gloves, two right gloves, and it got to the point where I was just losing so many gloves. About a year after that, [my wife and I] were at somebody’s house and there on the shelf on a little stick were a pair of my gloves. That started a game, if I see you stealing my gloves, you can’t take them. But, If I don’t see you take them…” We all laugh.
We wander back over to the front of the studio, “I know I paint a lot of skulls, but I think I do that for the same reason why I paint the sky. We’ve all got one. If I paint an old dude playing the guitar, it’s got all sorts of connotations with it. If I just paint a skeleton sitting there, people see what they want to see without thinking I’m trying to make some sort of broader statement. Like, this piece I just did. This is the first block print I’ve done in a while,” James says while picking up the block, “I don’t know why I like them so much, I’m not into horror movies or any of that stuff. I don’t ever look at it and see ‘creepy.’ I worry that some people think it comes across that way."
James’ excitement as he moves through his loft full of his work is without bound. He picks up one trinket to tell a story as soon as he puts another down. His eyes wild with what he wants to work on next. “Canvas is the church to me,” he says, “Only time I’m painting on canvas is if I’m at church. I’ll paint on dollars, I”ll paint on everything, nothing is sacred but canvas.” We ask where we can see more of his work, “You can’t really see my work anywhere, unless you know me,” speaking like a true artist. “I’m trying to change that.”
James Willis is a guy you want to hang with. Aside from his colorful stories, interesting artifacts, and quest for adventure, his imagination and positivity will shake you to your core. “It’s easy to make something look fancy with paint, you just paint it really neat, but at some point it becomes what’s the point of doing that? You’re just showing off that you can paint. And that’s not what I’m interested in doing,” James explains. He paints because he’s a maker, and always will be. —LE
FOUND is a monthly series by Original Fuzz Magazine. We aim to discover visual artists from every corner of the world, no matter the background or creative vision. We believe it's not just what you do, but how you do it. All art is as important to our culture as music, words, news, science, even religion. FOUND celebrates the visual and those who create it, serving as a platform for the creative pioneers who embody Original Fuzz and our products.