Richard Willis (b. 1968) is an architectural historian and sculptor, depicting high-rise apartment buildings, Shell gas stations, CTA buses and trains, and water towers. Willis is a living Google Earth, able to pinpoint virtually any building in Chicago and tell you when it was built, what building existed in the same spot before it, and the best bus route to get there. With simple materials and found wood, he recreates these structures flawlessly from memory with startling elegance, charm, and insight as to their function and history. Contact with real places and locality drive Willis’ work: with the use of appropriated materials, most often collected during his public transit or bicycle commutes around Chicago, Willis builds up objects of the city from the literal material of the city, taking items that are economically uninteresting and transforming them.
Willis is almost never seen without his iPad or laptop. He uses it for entertainment (watching the Three Stooges and old cartoons) as well as collecting images of vintage gas station signs and doing research for his constructions. Another favorite past time is watching images of water tower demolitions on YouTube. It brings him joy to show his friends and these videos. When asked why he likes watertanks, Willis states, “Because Watertanks, they were gorgeous!”
Ricky is the younger brother to the late Chicago artist and musician Wesley Willis. Ricky and Wesley’s work was shown together for the first time in Wesley Willis/Ricky Willis/Joy Bus Ride as the inaugural exhibition at Project Onward’s new gallery at the Bridgeport Art Center, in the fall of 2013. In 2019, Ricky again had the honor of displaying his sculptures with his late brother’s drawings in an exhibition titled City of Many Dreams at Matthew Rachman Gallery.
Ricky Willis joined Project Onward in 2011 and currently lives in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.