"He just kept saying, 'I didn’t think anybody would care, I didn’t think anybody would care,'" Paige Wery explained in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Wery, the owner of Los Angeles' Good Luck Gallery, is describing her first interaction with artist Willard Hill, who, for the past 20 years, has been creating bundled sculptures of masking tape and discarded goods in the privacy of his own home, with no knowledge that anyone from the outside world would consider his secluded pastime art.
Hill was born and raised in Manchester, Tenn., a city with a population of approximately 10,000. One of eight children, Hill lost his mother when he was a kid, and his father left the family soon after. Without any grandparents to step in, the Hill children virtually raised themselves. "It was survival mode," Wery responded when I asked if Hill had ever visited a museum as a kid. "He has never been to a museum, and he is 80."
His standout memories from childhood involve being selected from his class to paint Christmas scenes on the windows during the holidays. "He never thought of any of that as art," Wery clarified. As an adult, Hill expressed himself mainly through cooking, working as a chef specializing in Southern food.
Things took a turn for Hill around 20 years ago when he suffered a hernia that kept him tethered to the home. He got sick of watching TV and, according to Wery, noticed some wire and tape sitting nearby. He just started making things, and has done so every day for the past two decades.
More specifically, Hill makes ragtag sculptures from whatever loot he happens to scoop up from his surroundings, wrapping his spoils in masking tape in a variety of wiry configurations. In one, a horse draws a carriage with a rider on top and three miniature passengers in the rear, a small bug-eyed critter dangling off the back as a final punchline.
Hill never plans out what a sculpture is going to look like beforehand, but rather lets the materials guide the way. The figures emerge organically from no particular vision. Googly eyes are the one constant, giving the miniature works an adorable yet monstrous feel, while uniting the whole bunch as one big, motley family.
Hill had only tried to sell his artworks once before. At a friend's suggestion, he brought them to the Manchester flea market and set up a booth, offering them for $20 each. None sold, and that was that. He traded a couple of figures with an auto body shop in exchange for a car service, and another visitor to the auto shop noticed the dusty totems and recognized them as art. He contacted Wery, who eventually travelled to meet Hill in person.
"I had never seen anything like it before," Wery said. "Like a lot of outsider artists, it’s solely his original voice. Taking trash and creating these little scenes -- people in fancy outfits, riding horses and buggies. It’s kind of a treasure trove, for an outsider gallery to find someone like this."
Although Hill offered to sell a work for $20, Wery offered $200, estimating what she thought she could get for the piece at her gallery. Hill was floored, even more so when Wery took home 200 works on commission. The exodus of creatures, didn't even make a dent in Hill's extensive home collection, which numbers in the thousands, with creatures and characters crammed into nearly every corner of his home. "You couldn’t even tell that we had taken anything. That’s how much work is in his house."
"He is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met," Wery continued, explaining that the checks he's received from the gallery so far -- half of all sales -- have gone toward providing the members of his church community with Christmas dinner and repairs for their basketball hoops.
Now retired, Hill is a homebody through and through. He occasionally goes fishing -- the fruits of which he also gifts to his neighbors and friends -- but aside from that, he prefers not to leave the house. He cooks at home for his wife and kids, and he makes art -- lots of it. "Nowadays, most of us don’t think there are people just sitting in their house making thousands of pieces of art," Wery said, "but they’re still out there."
Willard Hill's work will show at Good Lucky Gallery in Los Angeles,Calif., from February 27 until April 2, 2016. Learn more about Hill in the video below:
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