Text by Joanne M. Anderson | Photos by Kristie Lea Photography
The average dorm room at Virginia Tech is 168 square feet, which is about the same size as George Wills’ art studio downtown, which doubles as his living room. In a slightly smaller, adjacent room, he makes prints, then mats and wraps them. Antiquated pine wainscoting more than three-quarters of the way up the walls edges up to a rich medium aquamarine blue, which covers the walls in the next room. Old hardwood floors, lots of books in piles and bookcases and an eclectic mix of odd furniture lend an old-time charm to the space. The computers and printer look slightly out of place in this small, rustic apartment in a little house in the historic district.
But it isn’t the computers anyway that capture George’s attention ~ it’s the easel, drawing paper, bins of brushes and tubes of paint, coupled with whimsical critters in his imagination, often perched atop one another. However, he does use the computer in a unique way. “My Blacksburg town pieces are digitally drawn in Photoshop. Photoshop is not a drawing program, but using my ability with perspective and the program’s tools, I can create colorful, modernist prints,” he explains.
The 56-year-old artist, who attended most of elementary and all of middle and high school in Blacksburg, never considered any other career path than art. “Given my meandering grades, it was a wise choice,” he quips. He majored in fine art at Virginia Tech with a focus on comic strip writing and drawing, and still he most enjoys sketching with a black pen. But, he’s not the first artist to embrace a favorite medium which is not always the one that sells the most. “What sells the best pays the bills.”
His first memory of knowing he had some art talent came around half a decade in age. “I was attending a Christmas party for children when I was 5 or 6, and we were instructed to draw Christmas trees. Someone’s parent held up my drawing and said: ‘Look what George drew.’”
Wills placed high once in a national collegiate comic strip contest while a student at VT. “The recognition helped me land a stint writing gags and drawing for Jeff MacNelly’s “SHOE,” a nationally syndicated comic strip. He didn’t need the assistance. Jeff was just congenial, mentoring and nearby in Richmond,” he recalls. He also placed second in an earlier national contest. “Of interest,” he notes, “Berkeley Breathed was third. But, of course, his cartoonist career went much, much better with Bloom County than mine.”
His creative talent does not reside solely on paper or canvas. He was one of three first place winners 12 years ago in the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting competition. “I also completed a stage play titled ‘Marooned in Blacksburg,’ which tells the story of a beleaguered wife who hates maroon and orange and her battle with her husband who intends to paint their garage maroon with orange gutters. My humor writing is under the radar to those who know me, and I’ve enjoyed writing humorous pieces about the Town of Blacksburg for 16 Blocks Magazine.”
Wills finds Winslow Homer’s watercolors stunning, and it is his Adirondack works that inspired Wills’ interest in watercolors. He also admires English illustrator Ralph Stedman’s chaotic, original watercolors. “He created a style unique to him,” Wills concedes, “and that is an impressive accomplishment.”
George Wills paintings grace walls not only locally, like in Town vice-mayor Krisha Chachra’s living room, but also in Hokie homes all over the world. “I’ve shipped to Australia, Germany, Switzerland and England. Matrix Gallery sells the occasional piece to departing foreign students taking back a memory that packs flat and easy in a suitcase.”
He doesn’t keep pets, because they can be problematic in a tiny studio space, and he doesn’t do plein air, painting outside. “I never paint outdoors. I prefer to walk and observe when in nature, to keep moving forward. I will sketch in a pad for reference, but not paint. I’m lazy that way.” But there’s nothing lazy about the innovative, digital paintings depicting local color all over town — Gillie’s, the Lyric, the Cellar and many other downtown establishments.
Wills makes up for being a man of few words by being an artist with beaucoup talent. Buyers are charmed by his fanciful, whimsical, amusing depictions of birds and animals, sometimes stacked up and other times simply happy in their enchanting little worlds. Even though he’s passed through a few decades since being 5 or 6, Wills’ paintings still evoke that astonishing observation: Look what George drew!
George Wills art is found at:
? Matrix Gallery
? Bollo’s Café and Bakery
? Eucalyptus Massage and Art Gallery