Enigmatic artwork defines prof’s career

By Alex Brown

John Will is a man fascinated equally by politics and bumper stickers. So says Christine Sowiak, curator of Will’s gallery exhibit, describing the artist’s eccentricities.

Such eccentricities are showcased in John Will: Ain’t Paralyzed Yet, which runs at the Nickle Arts Museum from Feb. 9 to April 21. The former U of C professor’s exhibit focuses on the creative career of this unique individual act. The show includes work from the past four decades–not surprisingly, Sowiak uses the decisive term "enigma" to describe a man with such diverse interests.

"No one reacts neutrally to John’s work," declares Sowiak.

A strong force in the Calgary art community and throughout western Canada, Will is known for his ability to consistently escape what many artists fear–being pigeonholed into a trademark category, an image. His art addresses innumerable subjects, emotions and ideas.

"Everything that happens… within his life span that he’s seen or observed eventually ends up in his work," explains Sowiak.

This may include anything from miscellaneous snippets of a conversation he heard at a bar to earth-shattering events he witnessed.

More accurately, John Will’s work is a view of the world through his own eyes. This is best demonstrated in his most recent piece, Sixty Years of Hell, which presents an arrangement of 60 dates and corresponding places on separate black markers. The piece has one date for each year of his life and one event for each location. They vary from such catastrophes as the bombing of Pearl Harbour to the year and locale of his first fist fight.

And there, in the nod to his first fight amidst a wash of dismal world crises, we catch a glimpse of the thread that binds his work together.

"The most recognizable thing about John’s work is his sense of humour," says Sowiak.

This takes the form of cutting irony and self-deprecating wit. His work makes cutting jabs at the art community, with one oil painting from 1980 screaming, "Now, this canvas is fairly reasonable, I’d say."

"[Will explores] the culture and society that he lives in… trying to position where you yourself as an individual are within that," says Sowiak.

The variety of mediums Will uses reflect his complex view of the world, translated through art. His work includes painting, mixed media experiments, film projects and print-making. Hes shared this talent with others in his career as a teacher at multiple schools in Canada, including his 26 year tenure at the U of C.

Though there are many faces to his art and his philosophy, John Will is certainly no jack-of-all-trades. Somehow, threading his ironic humour through each technique, he has mastered each of them. Sowiak encourages viewers to not be afraid of getting up close to Will’s work.

"In order to appreciate John’s work you have to take the time to stand in front of it and interact with it," she says.