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Sixty on Sixty: Brian Willard

The following is part of our series of Sixty on Sixty interviews which give our readers the chance to learn more about us by turning lens towards the people behind Sixty Inches From Center.

Brian Willard

SNR: Much of your work reveals a fixation with the human figure. Why does this subject matter interest you?

BW: I go back to my creative writing classes at Columbia wherein my professors always pushed my classmates and I to search for moments of intimate skin-on-skin contact.  They impressed upon us the intrinsic value and power of those moments and scenes, even if it is just one hand touching another; human beings relate to others and essentially crave that contact.  Creating paintings of the human form is a way for me to directly address my audience.  Figurative work opens up the possibility to use the subjects almost like an avatar for the viewer. Regardless of who they are and what position they are in, you can translate innumerable experiences and points of view to others simply by connecting with them on the basis of human existence.

It’s also a way for me to investigate different genders or subcultures by painting them.  Not everyone wears high heels, but capturing the physicality of an arched foot and strained ankle is in a way an example of how men can possibly begin to relate to a small part of female existence.  At the end of the day I believe that all one can ever really own is their body, and the ways in which we use them and present them is a powerful symbol.  More than figures necessarily, I think I’m really more concerned with relationships between people, even if it is just a lone subject and the audience.  When I write fiction, most of my stories focus on relationships between a relatively small number of people, so when I paint figures I’m essentially creating other characters for people to experience.

Tori, Brian Willard. Photo by Stephanie Serine.

I’m also slightly obsessed with body modification and I love to see how people continue to modify and claim their bodies.  Self-possession is very important to me, and I see many forms of body alteration as a decision to live a singular life without compromise.  I find that very strong and admirable.  The strength of how the human body can adapt and mold itself to new things is very interesting to me.  There is no better record of personal history than studying an individual’s body.

Truth be told, I’ve painted more landscapes than I have painted figures but the atmosphere of whatever landscape I’m working on usually relates to the attitude of the figures I’m either simultaneously working on or preparing to create.

SNR: Do you draw and paint from life, and if so, where do you find your models?

BW: That’s a tough question – it depends upon the project.  I always prefer to work from life and I really think that there is no other way to capture a true figure in painting than to have a live model present for at least part of the painting process.  That said, my current living and working situation finds me commuting heavily and by the time I’m home in my studio and have time to paint, I cannot really call up friends or models to pose for me.  Instead, I’ve had to create a library of photographs depicting figures in positions that are either dynamic and visually appealing to me, or typically challenging to use as references in lieu of a live model.  These photos are not ideal but it is the most practical substitute for the moment.

For my Skewed Beauty collection however, I intentionally resisted working from live models.  At that time I had just finished a rather involved triptych painting that featured models (who were friends of mine) and challenging painting techniques and I felt a bit worn out about painting.  In order to regain my enthusiasm I started drawing and painting a large range of subjects that I simply found “beautiful”.  The initial sketches were harvested from people-watching sessions at restaurants and libraries, drawing wrists, glassware, and interior decorations.  As the drawings progressed I found myself becoming distracted by images of fashion shows and editorial magazine shoots.

Marc Jacobs 08 Posh, Skewed Beauty series, Brian Willard.


Louboutins, Skewed Beauty series, Brian Willard.

As I began copying the figures and designs from these highly stylized photos, I began noticing how the female form was being contorted and molded into some incredibly fetishistic images.  […] There is a tension held within these constructed forms of beauty because at once you can see it as a perversion of natural form and a manner of imprisonment, and then you can also view the ability to withstand and adopt these modifications as a sign of incredible strength and self-possession.

When I was creating my senior thesis painting, Renunciation, I tried to work from life as much as possible in order to capture the natural qualities seen in the paintings of Frans Hals, Velázquez, and Courbet – who heavily influenced that piece and are three of my favorite painters.  I created a detailed sketch of all of the figures to establish and refine my composition and once that was roughed in I called upon my family and friends to pose for me. I know I really tried their patience with that project but I wanted to push it as far as I could.

Renunciation, Brian Willard. Photo by Zach Johnston.


SNR What other media have you experimented with, and why is paint now the medium of your choice?

BW: At Columbia I was required to take a survey of the classic mediums like sculpture, printmaking, and painting as well as newer ones like performance, video, and sound.  In each discipline I found my own way of creating work that suited my own sensibilities.  Most of those practices hinged on control and careful detail.  A friend of mine just recently reminded me how I obsessively cleaned and prepared my zinc plates in our printmaking class and insisted on adopting a William Blake aesthetic for all of my prints, regardless of the assignment.  In new media studies I usually created videos that were edited within an inch of their life.  Ultimately I always found myself restricted and confined by most other mediums and never felt like my full, clear vision was finding its way to the surface.  Perhaps it is because I started drawing at a very young age and received a rigorous painting education quite early on, but when it comes to conveying my point of view or my intention about something, drawing and painting have always been the two languages that didn’t necessitate cumbersome translation of my thoughts or images.

I do usually look outside of painting for my inspiration though.  I find that if I primarily look to painting as a starting point, I unconsciously end up mirroring whatever I have already seen.  I usually look to different genres of music, film, or fashion to latch onto a mood or impression that matches something that I want to explore in my work. It almost becomes a process of creating a new working atmosphere and by surrounding myself with the sounds, smells and habits of a particular culture, I am moved to make different work that looks a little more singular than it would if I only looked at paintings.

Hidden, Skewed Beauty series, Brian Willard.

I also love making journals. In the summer of 2008, I studied abroad in Florence and created two art journals documenting my artistic journey and education in a foreign city.  That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.  Combining poetry, photographs, and drawings felt very natural to me, and I feel quite proud of both journals I produced during that time.  The first journal actually was purchased to be part of the permanent collection at the Joan Flasch Artist Book collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

SNR: Does your being an artist yourself affect the way you conduct interviews with artists for Sixty?

BW: Yes. I am very decisive about what I like and what interests me in art on both conceptual and technical levels.  When I become fixated on creating a painting, I usually get a strong initial impression and then work towards honing and refining just what it is that I’m struck by and also how I can represent that visually.  Creating a piece on a technical level then goes from blocking in the elements with broad forms and then going through a process of clarifying and adding detail.  When I prepare for an interview I do as much research as I can and generate a list of questions.  I find that those questions usually shift from general questions about conceptual matters and then become more specific about craft, detail, and then the subject’s personal connection and investment in their project.  I’m also a bit more concerned personally by how a piece is created as I highly value the element of the artist’s hand within a piece of work and ask a lot of questions about craft and technique that do not usually make it to print.

Father, I Killed My Monkey; Brian Willard


SNR: Who are your most memorable interviewees for Sixty and why?

BW: Well, I’m very selective about the stories I take on, so I really have a limited library to choose from, and that means that they are all memorable.  Gallery Provocateur owners Veronika Kotlajic and Simon Lamb were very open about the process of opening their gallery and the challenges they faced featuring alternative work.  That evening’s discussion really stretched on late into the evening, and they were incredibly hospitable and gracious – I never wanted to leave!  Curator Debra Purden was also very direct and open about her curatorial process for the Morbid Curiosity exhibition at the Cultural Center and she was happy to get into the nitty gritty details regarding the installation of both the tiny, delicate artifacts, and the large, oppressive pieces from Richard Harris’s collection. I also really treasure that recording of our conversation and her tour of the exhibit because she is so knowledgeable about both world and art history. That discussion was quite an education for me.

My last interview with artist Harry Sudman was also very memorable, mostly because I had been trying to meet him for over two years with no luck.  I found a postcard of his paintings a little over a year before I joined Sixty Inches From Center, and at my first meeting with the SIFC team I was asked if there were any artists I wanted to highlight and Harry Sudman was my first choice.  As the weeks and months passed by though, I could not get in touch with him for a number of reasons. Finally making contact with him was a great reward. […]

Yearning, Skewed Beauty series, Brian Willard

Sudman was unbelievably kind, articulate and peaceful.  He was also incredibly generous with his time.  What we had originally slated as a brief one hour interview stretched out into four hours wherein he showed me nearly every painting in his studio and detailed his prestigious European painting education.  We had so much to talk about that my recorder ran out of space and he was kind enough to meet with me once again to finish our conversation.  That second meeting also exceeded three hours and was even more illuminating than the first.  Also, while his website features very high quality images of his work, visiting his studio showed me that there is no comparison to viewing his paintings in person – they are simply breathtaking to see up close.  As a painter myself, that was an incredibly thrilling meeting.

SNR: You studied and work in Chicago but live in Lake Bluff. How have you noticed the arts scene in your town differs from that of Chicago?

Landscapes by Brian Willard

BW: Lake Bluff and the neighboring town of Lake Forest (where I still take painting classes and belong to the local Deerpath Art League) have a long history of featuring and promoting lots of incredible painters who specialize in landscapes, florals, and portraits.  The local galleries feature very classic traditional artwork that is nourishing and inspiring to me because I grew up around that type of work and hoped to create such pieces one day; the level of craft is really stunning, yet it can feel very insular living in these towns.  Given that a good portion of my work explores themes and imagery that some consider “dark” or objectionable, I’m reticent to promote that side of myself too much as a good majority of the community probably would not like my work or consider it valid based upon where they live and what the collective taste is.  That said, there are a good number of people in these towns that really hunger and thirst for more progressive contemporary art – my latest article about Shota Kawahara‘s solo show at the Lake Forest Re-Invent Gallery touches upon that.  The art community is significantly smaller than Chicago’s too, which makes attending exhibition openings and working within the different art leagues a bit more intimate and comfortable. […]

As you know, the creative process is an addictive bug and the more work you make and the more you surround yourself with inspirational people and things, the better your work becomes.  I only have a few people to turn to in my hometown.  Having a smaller community makes navigating through the waters more transparent, but it also means that a few select people dictate what is shown and therefore they control the local market.  While there are some powerful forces in Chicago as well, there is a wider variety of spaces to display work and there are more opportunities to get your work shown, regardless of genre, age or style.

SNR: Talk a little about your upcoming show.

BW: This weekend I will be exhibiting several of my landscape paintings and portraits at the Lake Bluff Golf Club. While most of the paintings on my website are rather surreal and rough, I am classically trained in landscape painting.  When I was eleven I met an incredible painter named Jacqui Blatchford at a Lake Bluff art fair.  When I asked her if she would take me on as a student she initially refused, claiming that she did not teach children.  It was my good fortune that a month or two later, for whatever reason, she called my mother and agreed to allow me to attend one of her workshops.  She kept inviting me back, and she’s been my mentor ever since.  Jacqui Blatchford studied at Oxford University and the Slade School of Art in London and her eye is unparalleled in my opinion.  Her landscape painting instruction is really the cornerstone of my art education and it is always what I return to in order to hone my skills, relax, and find balance.  I don’t exhibit very frequently, so this will be an exciting weekend to see how my paintings are received by the community.

To learn more about Willard’s work, visit

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