Wesley Willis

Wesley Willis (1963-2003) was born in Chicago. He was one of 10 children and lived in Chicago Housing Authority projects. He spent a lot of time in and out of foster homes.

His drawings reflect his familiarity with the Chicago cityscape. Noted for his large presence, both physically and in his personality, Willis is remembered selling his work on the street. At the age of 18, he met architect and art collector Paul Young, who took notice of the drawing of buildings that Willis was carrying. Young invited Willis to attend his class at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which Willis did for five years. Noted Young, Willis ‘had a tremendous memory. He learned the buildings in Chicago, how many stories they were. He knew about the important architecture.’

After a violent altercation with a drug addict, Willis began hearing what he called ‘demon voices’ in his head, which he named ‘Heartbreaker,’ ‘Nervewrecker’ and ‘Meansucker.’ At the age of 26, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the early 1990s, Dale Meiners, a rock guitarist and employee of a favorite store where Willis came to draw, began to represent Willis and show his work in his apartment. Willis began listening to, self-producing and performing music set to Casio keyboard melodies and fronting the rock band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco. While record labels began releasing his songs, Willis continued to independently produce albums he sold on the street or at music concerts. He produced more than 100 albums and thousands of drawings during his lifetime and developed a large following in the underground music and self-taught art worlds.

Curious about the music of Wesley Willis? Listen to his ‘Greatest Hits Volume I’ album on YouTube.

Watch two documentaries about Wesley Willis:

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