Wishes Are Horses
In Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, Julie Wills visited the ancient medicine wheel, a stone circle constructed by Plains Indians centuries ago. This is sacred ground, a place where wishes and desire are manifest in the landscape. Even today, on that desolate mountaintop, people offer prayers for healing, and make atonement for harm done to others and to Mother Earth. The low wall around the wheel is covered with prayer ties and prayer bundles, scraps of colorful cloth, tobacco, and string.
“It really captivated me,” recalls Wills, an interdisciplinary artist who took inspiration from that visit to create “Love Medicine,” a piece in her Kohl Gallery exhibit. “The Native American tradition is not unlike praying the rosary. When someone has a need, they tie cloth bundles of tobacco, which is considered a sacred plant, and each one has a concrete intention associated with it. The length of the string of bundles indicates the depth of the maker’s need.”
Wills’ sculptures and collages are inspired by what she calls the tools of desire—wishes, hopes, efforts, and intentions—“things that we engage in when there are things we badly want and there is no practical course of action, so we turn to the more magical or ephemeral.”
The exhibition title, in fact, Wishes Are Horses, bends the cautionary proverb “if wishes were horses” toward hopeful optimism. The structure of “Love Medicine,” a bed spring tied with cloth, paper, ceramic, and bits of found objects, is metaphorically loaded. “Like with my experience of the medicine wheel in Wyoming,” Wills says, “I hope there will be a residual sense of others’ longing and need.”
Growing up in a mountain community in Colorado, Wills says she has always been an artist. What’s more difficult to pin down is that moment when her art became less about the medium and more about ideas. She works in the expanded field of sculpture, including installation, collage works on paper, performance, video, and site-specific practices, and is also interested in poetic language.
“I work seamlessly between all these things, choosing what best serves the idea,” she says. “That sums up my approach to teaching. And it’s very much in keeping with the philosophy of the College’s studio art program, which is unique for a school this size. Our curriculum is very forward thinking.”
Wills is particularly drawn to visual art because, she says, “it [allows for] a simultaneity of experience that language doesn’t facilitate. Once we start communicating with words, those ideas necessarily get ordered. When you remove language and encounter visual or auditory experience, we can have all those things present at the same time, even if we can’t name them.”
In addition to her exhibition at Kohl Gallery, Wills is mounting two additional solo exhibits this fall—The moon my heart at the Arlington Arts Center in Virginia (October 14-Decmber 17), and Two Voices Carry Farther than One, a collaboration with artist Cody VanderKaay at Whittier College’s Greenleaf Gallery in Los Angeles (October 19-November 24).
“Having three exhibitions run concurrently means that none of the pieces can be reused, so that’s been driving a lot of new work,” says Wills. Work that has garnered the support of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York and the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, where she recently held a fellowship residency.
In May, she presented a solo exhibit at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC titled Desire and Its Constraints. And as a regional semi-finalist for the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, her work will be on view at Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia in October.
“I chose to come to Washington College last fall in part because of its proximity to major art centers in DC, Philly, and New York,” she says. “DC in particular is where I’ve made the most connections in my short time here. I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of curators, and a couple of opportunities have led to other opportunities. So, I’m trying to build on that exposure.”