By Jeffrey Bussmann
You always know when Willie is around. Music from his boom box wafts down the long fifth floor of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. You will find him ensconced in the alcove that has become his Philadelphia studio (he splits his time between here and Baltimore), sharing space with old prototypes for past FWM artist-in-residence projects. He is normally engrossed in his work, surrounded by a number of paintings and drawings in different stages of completion. It sometimes takes a while for the animals and people in the picture to gel right.
A niche has been set aside for Willie at every different location FWM has inhabited for the past thirty five years. The jungle of potted plants he cared for at the previous Cherry Street location is long gone. So too is his pet turtle, known as Michael Jackson, which actually turned out to be female. But his music collection has remained a constant, initially with a large selection of cassette tapes, many of which are still in boxes close by, nowadays with stacks of CDs.
The songs range from classic Soul Train fodder, to 1980s hip-hop, and up through contemporary R&B divas. It is all about setting the best vibe for his process; the lyrical content is of lesser importance. These musicians often star in his paintings, among celebrities of other media, though not necessarily because he is listening to a particular song of theirs. Clippings from publications like Metro, Philadelphia Weekly, and TV Guide serve as broad reference, which Willie changes around completely.
In any given painting, you might find stars from different eras brought together, perhaps both living and deceased. Then there are the animals. Little Richard can be found riding a bull. Dumbo, Puss In Boots, and other animated characters keep company with Elvis Presley and Whoopi Goldberg. Creatures wholly of his own imagining also join in the fun. There is a blissful horror vacui to the work, as he fills it with vibrating and twisting figures. The visualized musicality of the work even calls to mind Kandinsky, if you replaced the strains of an orchestra with the smooth grooves of the Philadelphia Sound.
Others have written (notably in the catalogue for his 2007 solo show) about how Willie has retained a remarkable singularity of vision, despite decades of exposure and interaction with the numerous artist-in-residence alumni from FWM. His early work from the 1970s is of-a-piece with what he continues to do today. Throughout, Willie has starred in his own pictures, becoming a kind of self-made celebrity denizen of his painted world. Looking at photographs of Willie through the years, you can track his sartorial evolution, which carries over into the paintings. “The Kid,” his alter ego, is Willie at his most dapper and daring. The moniker elevates him to the status of the single-name musicians he depicts—Prince, Madonna, Beyoncé—while evoking a slew of popular references reaching as far back as the Charlie Chaplin film of the same name, up through songs like War’s “The Cisco Kid.” It also connotes a character with a bit of playful rakishness, which peeks from beneath Willie’s even-keeled exterior now and again.
If there is any melancholy to Willie’s work, it is in the knowledge of the premature deaths of some of his heroes. Throughout his career, Willie has memorialized many artists who died too soon: Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Kinison to name a few. More recently, the passing of a certain pop icon hit him hard. Willie is a lifelong fan of Michael Jackson. In the early 1970s he went with his sisters to watch the Jackson 5 perform live at the Spectrum. Although loathe to single out a favorite album or song, Thriller is up there on his list and M.J. has appeared with regularity is his paintings. The two of them, very close in age, shared a mutual fondness for an identifying accessory: Jackson with his sequined glove and Willie with his cap, most frequently of the newspaper boy variety.
Nevertheless, Willie has never dwelled on the negative. He tends to his art without fail, like a benign shark that must keep swimming in order to breathe. There is a certain therapeutic serenity in the way he works, as he moves in concert with the music coming out of his stereo. If you find yourself at the Fabric Workshop, ask if Willie is there and you will encounter the joie de vivre of his painted world.