Briefly describe the work you do.
I have a painting/drawing-derived practice that examines the ideologies of image-making through multimedia and performative approaches. My projects can range from participatory painting installations, to painting on pizza boxes, corporate website campaigns for canvas manufacturing, and even lighting paintings on fire.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. At a young age I had been labeled “an artist” by my family, merely by my ability to draw realistic pictures. This observational ability I had as a kid was responsive to the spectacle of the Las Vegas Strip. The city’s extravagant neon structures and themed buildings functioned as a visual toy-box for me, acting as an early lesson in design, architecture, and advertising.
I also worked on the Strip as a green-screen retail photographer during all of college, humorously capturing and superimposing backdrops of Las Vegas behind thousands of tourists a week. Here I was exposed to the comedic kitsch of the Strip through the behaviors of the casino industry and its consumer decadence. I would experience how these gambling establishments would socially target their clientele through the design, architecture, and advertising structures that I would admire most. This is when I began questioning the value of these visually enticing spaces along with the visually enticing pictures I had been creating in my art.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
The emphasis of labor is important to my practice, so I do find that a traditional studio is sometimes necessary for achieving the level of craft that is present in my art. However, I also do not limit myself to this select method of art making. Depending on the idea, my creations can take place in a relational space too. For example, I have an ongoing collaborative practice with artist John C. Gonzalez where we create improvisational site specific works that exist candidly within spaces. The viewers are invited to actively search and question where the works are and what they could even possibly be, and their discoveries are verbally passed onto other viewers as well. This allows for the interpretation and content of the works to change over time.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
A life in art has taught me how to sustain a life of curiosity, clairvoyance, and enterprise, all of which I find are gained as a kid but are not commonly preserved as an adult. I believe exposure to art can shift these coded behaviors in an individual or even a society over time.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I am the most creatively accomplished from around 8pm to 4am. I will forever be a nocturnal desert creature. I can also feel guilty when I’m not “working” on art, so I find that I sometimes deceive myself into thinking that I am always working on something even when I’m not actually doing anything at all. It is an unfortunate trait that the American workforce has taught me.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Living outside of Las Vegas and traveling more has helped my work a lot. I feel like I still reference my Vegas-rooted interests more than ever, but with a more-farsighted/less-myopic gaze.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My brother Brian Willis and artist/friend Justin Favela are two of the funniest, most imaginative, and awe-inspiring people I know, and I am fortunate to have them in my life and to bounce ideas off of. As for a pop impact, my latest paintings could be seen as a love-child between Robert Ryman and Carrot Top.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
In another life I would like to be an r&b soul singer.
Thomas Willis is a Boston-based artist who is originally from Las Vegas, NV. His art has shown in over 30 national and international exhibitions, with works in institutions such as the Luo Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Bentley University, and the deCordova Museum. Willis received his BFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2009. He currently works at the Art Department at Wellesley College and has a studio at the Howard Art Project in Field’s Corner, Dorchester.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.