Wesley Willis retrospective “Joy Bus Ride” includes pieces from artist’s brother Ricky Willis


October 11, 2013 2:46PM

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Updated: October 11, 2013 5:30PM

Ricky Willis loves the tall buildings of Chicago.

They help him touch the stars.

Willis is the younger brother of artist-musician Wesley Willis. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989, Wesley Willis collaborated with Jello Biafra, and Eddie Vedder was a fan of his primitive music and raps. In 2003 Willis died of complications from leukemia. He was 40 years old.

His brother is an artist in his own right, who specializes in sculptures of the city’s landscape. He also makes cardboard and paper CTA buses, not unlike the colored pencil and ink bus drawings by Wesley Willis.

Project Onward hosts a free screening of the 77-minute documentary “Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides” at 6 p.m. Saturday in its new space on the fourth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th (773-793-8454). The screening is held in conjunction with the Wesley Willis-Ricky Willis exhibition “Joy Bus Ride,” one of the only retrospectives of Willis’ artwork in Chicago. There are 83 pieces in the show. Filmmakers Chris Bagley and Kim Shively will be on hand for a post-screening discussion.

Ricky Willis is a Project Onward artist. He contributed 33 sculptures and eight drawings and collages. The Wesley Willis pieces are on loan from collectors.

Project Onward provides workspace, art supplies, professional guidance and opportunities for exhibition and sales to its artists, who have talents but face challenges ranging from autism to mental illness. (Wesley Willis’ art is not for sale, but most of Ricky’s is; their work is on display through Nov. 9.)

Wesley Willis was the subject of two films. “Joy Bus Ride” includes animations of his artwork and interviews with family and friends. It came out in 2008. “The Daddy of Rock ’n’ Roll” was released in 2003 by filmmaker Daniel Bitton. This film features Willis riding his beloved buses and making his rounds around the city. He was a regular at the old Dr. Wax record store on the North Side, where his trademark greeting was a rather fierce head butt.

Ricky Willis is 45 years old. He has an intellectual disability.

Willis rides his bicycle to Project Onward from his Bronzeville home. He brings his sculptures to the gallery in the front basket of his mighty Schwinn.

“He comes in with these magnificent scupltures,” said Rachael Zuppke, communications director of Project Onward. “He uses a lot of found materials. Ricky came here with a very concrete article of what his work is about, which is the case with most of our artists. Carla Winterbottom brought him to us.”

Winterbottom is a curator at the Beverly Arts Center. Wesley Willis lived with her for many years, and she is a close friend of Ricky’s. Many of the pieces in the show are from her personal collection.

You have to love Ricky Willis’ 57-inch-tall Willis Tower.

“I’ve been to Willis Tower,” he declared during an engaging talk at the gallery. Then he walked over to his sculpture and said, “Willis Tower. Built in 1973.”

Willis made his Willis Tower with cardboard, gaffer’s tape and glue.

He is influenced by his artist brother.

“My brother started drawing in 1980,” Willis said. “I started making buildings in 1989.”

Willis turned around and looked at his peaceful city. He said, “Lake Shore Drive. By Wrigley Field. 7447 South Shore Dr., by Rainbow Beach.” It takes him about three hours to make a sculpture of a building. He generally works off a picture. “I do a lot of research,” he said.

Willis has immediate recall.

When I mentioned the Sun-Times, he knew the paper’s office is adjacent to the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza. “Built in 1977,” he said, correctly.

Willis loves making detailed high rises. He has never made a house.

He grew up in the Stateway Garden projects. His nine brothers and sisters lived in various foster homes, but only Ricky lived with his mother Anne Willis. “37th and Federal,” he said. “The building wasn’t satisfied. They pickpocketed people in the building. There were lots of windows.”

Zuppke added, “Ricky watches a lot of YouTube videos of water tanks being demolished. They’re fascinating.”

Willis also wanders around the city taking pictures on his iPad. “I take buses to the suburbs,” he said.

Project Onward started in 2004. In
July the group relocated from the Chicago Cultural Center to a new 13,000-square=feet space with a new gallery. The custom-designed space is four times as big as the cultural center location, Zuppke said.

Project Onward has 40 artists in its program between the ages of 23 and 72.

“When they sell work they get 60 percent back from their sales,” Zuppke said. “Everyone is self-directed in their artwork with their own unique styles.”

E-mail: Dhoekstra@suntimes.com

Twitter: @cstdhoekstra

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