WILLIS BIGELOW | WINDFALL | West Marin
Read Willis Bigelow’s favorite book—Ian Stewart’s Flatland, a whimsical “math fiction” book about polygons whose two-dimensional universe is upended by the addition of another dimension—and you’ll get a sense of his artistic concerns, which include, but are not limited to: geometries, forms, topographies, space, and landscapes. Willis is a skilled bag-maker and sculptor—a versatile craftsman who is comfortable in several mediums, including wood and clay. Talking to him can feel like exploring a surreal, crater-pocked landscape of an extraterrestrial planet. He waxes poetic about landscapes, steles, watersheds, and fruit-drying silos, while extracting, from these tangible forms, abstract concepts and theoretical questions, like what happens when you transpose a three-dimensional object into two dimensions?
Willis considers this question as he contemplates Buckminster Fuller’s Dynamaxion map pinned up on the wall of his studio, which is comprised of a large work desk and two industrial sewing machines in the upstairs section of his Inverness abode. Willis, who is 25 years old, is boyish-looking and doe-eyed, with curly, sandy hair tucked beneath a worn, suede newsboy cap. He has three small piercings in his ears, which delicately ornament his slight frame. Though he’s studied this map many times before, it’s clear that he’s still fascinated by it. The Dynamaxion map, a projection of the world onto 14 flat segments—eight triangles and six squares—was rendered to address the cartographic dilemma of how to depict our spherical world on a flat surface, true-to-scale. The map inspired Willis’s prototype of the Triagonal Dopp Kit, a triangular pouch made from two rectangular sheets of canvas. Instead of lying flat, the pouch is three-dimensional and sculptural; Willis wanted to make a bag with movement built into it, "a bag that is a verb instead of a noun,” he says. “Designing bags is a topological problem because you have all these different faces. It’s a very spatial issue for me.”
Willis seeks to make a bag with movement built into it, “a bag that is a verb instead of a noun,” he says. “Designing bags is a topological problem because you have all these different faces. It’s a very spatial issue for me.”
But there’s also a kind of pragmatism that is critical in making functional, usable objects like bags, and this pragmatism can sometimes conflict with Willis’s inherent, conceptual bent toward art, which he cultivated while studying sculpture at Cooper Union in New York—he graduated in 2012. “I make bags that I would want to use myself,” he says, referring to the large totes and messenger bags that he makes from a range of durable fabrics, including cordura and rip-stop nylon. Still, there are intersections of the conceptual and the pragmatic that culminate in exceptionally intelligent design, like a large black net bag made from cordura straps. Willis was inspired to make the bag when he realized that many messenger bags are overbuilt for day-to-day use, and that the amount of fabric used could be reduced without diminishing the strength of the bag. Conceptually, this is not dissimilar from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, an example of what Fuller calls “ephemeralization,” in which more space can be enclosed with less material. Admittedly, “fabric is actually a net at a very small scale,” Willis says.
Willis taught himself to make bags through trial and error, learning one small skill at a time. It appears that Willis, who is also proficient in woodworking, cabinet-making, and photography, accumulates these skills quite easily. Around his Inverness house, which feels more like a large wooden cabin belonging to Thoreau-loving hunters and gatherers, these skills are embodied in various objects and forms, like a hand-carved wooden chess set, a tar-covered plaster stele, and a framed black-and-white photograph of Twin Peaks. “I’m really interested in how man-made things interrupt nature, or change it,” he says. Even though he doesn’t consider his bag-making “fine art,” it still satisfies his urge to make things. No matter the medium, Willis Bigelow’s brain grasps for depth beyond the parameters of representation. “My work has to do with verticality, horizontality, space, the monumental,” he says.