Wesley Willis

1963 - 2003

  • THE DAN RYAN EXPRESSWAY 33RD ST. (night view), 1986, pen on paper, 74 x 102 cm
  • THE CHICAGO CITYSCAPES, 1984, mixed media on cardboard, 56 x 69 cm
  • BROOKLYN, NEW YORK CITY SKYLINE, 1982, mixed media on cardboard, 74 x 118 cm
  • CHICAGO RIVER, 1991, mixed media on paper, 736 x 107 cm
  • THE DAN RYAN EXPRESSWAY (Rock Island Rail Action), 1985, mixed media on paper, 74 x 102 cm
  • Untitled (Trucks and trailers), 1982-83, pen on paper, 23 x 33 cm
  • Untitled (Truck), 1982-83, pen on paper, 15 x 23 cm
  • Untitled (Trucks and Trailers), ca.1982, pen on paper, 36 x 21 cm

“Wesley will go down as one of the most unique songwriters and entertainment personalities in history. His music, lyrics, drawings, insight and the way he put them together are like no one else. Ever. There will never be another.”

- Jello Biafra, The Dead Kennedys

For the two decades prior to his death, American artist and cult rock-star icon Wesley Willis (1963 – 2003) rendered Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway and geometric skyline with lines drawn in ballpoint pen and felt-tip marker. Willis was a distinct presence within the Chicago music scene; well known to an alternative public for the energetic melodies from his Technics keyboard and his surreal lyrics that explore themes of his daily life, such as fast-food, bus lines, cultural trends and violent confrontations with super heroes. Amongst his biggest fans and advocates are Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Die Goldene Zitronen, Urge Overkill and Foo Fighters, for many of which he also played as an opener. His music and drawings go hand-in-hand. They are intertwined and inseparable: "music is the willpower to my artwork", he sings in DJ Quik.

Willis' distinctive and complex works utilise drafting techniques learnt during his years sitting in on drawing classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology. With cars and buses in side and isometric views, his often soft coloured drawings explore the congested Freeway that connects Chicago's South Side with the city's Downtown. Artist Johannes Wohnseifer once wrote of Willis: "I would like to see Willis' work on paper in an exhibition with drawings by David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha and H.C. Westermann. It would be obvious to all that his works are on par with theirs".

Willis passed away at age 40 in Skokie, Illinois.