Ricky 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, used for watching old Hanna-Barbara cartoons as well as research–mostly collecting images of vintage Shell gas station and re-watching images of water tower demolitions on YouTube. Younger brother to the late Chicago outsider artist and musician Wesley Willis, Ricky Willis’ work was shown together with his brother’s work for the first time in Wesley Willis/Ricky Willis/Joy Bus Ride, the inaugural exhibition at Project Onward’s new gallery at the Bridgeport Art Center, in the fall of 2013. Ricky Willis joined Project Onward in 2011 and currently lives in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.