Every day, Benjamin Wills writes letters to prisoners. He has done this for years now and has written thousands of letters. Somewhere along the way, the correspondence gave birth to an art vision-an aggregation of objects and content that has provided the source material for work that he has been creating for the last six years.
In 2013 Ben received a paper airplane from an incarcerated person. This was the first of what became hundreds he has collected since. He discovered that each inmate has a unique way of designing and decorating their plane. They vary in size. They are constructed from a wide array of papers. Some are made from notebook paper, drawing paper, commissary lists, denied appeals, or behavioral write-ups. They are covered in poems, pen work, drawings, letters, and color. They vary in theme from regret to hostility, from bravado to humility. Collectively, they give insight into a world separated by temporal, spatial, and cultural borders.
While Ben continues towards his goal of collecting 1,000 planes, he will be using Rocket Grants funding to create a digital archive that will document each craft. This will enable participants to share their contribution in a more direct way, and their families will be able to search through the archives and see their participation amidst the collection.
As the collection grows, Ben is able to connect more incarcerated people with their families and strangers who want to be involved with prison outreach. Each time the project is shown creates another opportunity to begin a conversation about social justice, community involvement, and prison reform. In 2018 the US had a penal population of 2.3 million.
Ben also creates installations of the collection. These are photographed and sent as postcards back to the participants, so they too can see their contributions as the collection grows and moves across the country. With this step, the Airplanes audience includes both free and incarcerated populations.
This year “Write a Letter to a Prisoner” quarterly events will also be hosted at the Kansas City Public Library. Ben will provide all necessary supplies and coach people on how to initiate correspondence with an incarcerated person.
Benjamin Wills is an artist based in Kansas City, MO. Using symbols, performances, objects, and installations, Wills has used his time communicating with and acknowledging marginalized populations, and researching new ways to tell stories and make marks. His work concentrates on understanding how communication through visual art can be transformative and how creativity feeds from our society.
For years, the majority of Wills’ outreach has been to men and women who will spend the majority, if not all of their lives incarcerated. He has exchanged hundreds of handwritten letters with prisoners, and this correspondence gave birth to an art practice – an aggregation of objects and content that has provided the source material for work that he has been creating since 2013. This has culminated in a body of work that is largely a reaction to the experience of living in a world separated by temporal, spatial, and cultural borders.
Wills received his B.F.A. in Art X, Expanded Forms, from the University of Georgia, and an M.A. and M.F.A. in Sculpture and Printmaking from the University of Iowa. He is currently the Catron Visiting Professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and has been an instructor at The Lawrence Art Center, and faculty-in-residence at the Salina Art Center. He is a Charlotte Street Resident Visual Artist for the 2018-19 season.