Immersed in the Present

by Stevie Zvereva

From realism to abstraction, Jaci Willis’ work embraces a broad spectrum of styles, techniques and materials.

When she gets the pieces lined up just right, Jaci Willis becomes hell-bent in her mission. Straddling a stool, she steps on the foot pedal, one hand welding, the other wielding a crowbar—an unlikely coordination further constricted by the limited mobility of her flame-retardant suit and mask. The unusual technique is captured on camera by her daughter, Nichole. “I don’t think anyone else does it that way,” Willis laughs. “Glorious things you have to do to get the job done.”

“That piece had about 40 panels that had to be welded together to make the figure,” she explains. When they don’t come out correctly, “you have to take a crowbar to them and bend them into place. You have a welder, and you’re sitting on the pedal, trying to get [each panel] tacked”—all while trying not to get burned. “Well, that’s just out the window,” she laughs. “[When] I have them lined up just right… I don’t care what I have to do to get it.” It’s a huge challenge—one of many in the arduous casting process, a science and art contingent on patience and sheer strength, which dates back to the Renaissance.

Getting Hooked
And there’s a renaissance aura about Jaci Willis—call it her inner da Vinci: part painter, inventor, student, chemist, engineer, teacher and sculptor. She lives on her toes, always ready to grab the next challenge off a shelf some say is too high to reach. As the firstborn of 16 (!) in Chillicothe, she was taught the principles of design, painting and drawing by her mother, an artist herself.

Inspired too, by her father, a chiropractor whom she credits for her thorough understanding of how the human form functions, Willis seems the obvious product of two halves, yet she would become the only artist in her sibling cohort—a talented herd of scientists, carpenters, intelligence officers and doctors. But first, casting dreams aside for practicality, she pursued a career in drafting; it wasn’t until her mom passed away that she realized she was on the wrong path.

“You only have so much time to do what you love,” she declares. “So I quit and started a mural business.” Though her murals remain around town at the likes of Weaver Ridge and Peoria Charter Coach, Willis promptly got bored, she admits. “So I went back to school.”

Determined at first to become a painting professor, she enrolled in Bradley University’s MFA program. That’s when she met Fisher Stolz, the nationally renowned stone, steel and metal sculptor. It might have been the intricate casting process that appealed to her multifaceted interests, maybe Stolz’s passion for the medium was contagious, or perhaps painting was simply not demanding enough. In any case, Willis was hooked.

A Soldier’s Salute
A longtime partnership between Stolz and Willis now spans more than a decade, with numerous collaborative projects complementing their own works. Their latest joint project, two soldier castings for VFW Post 4999 in Chillicothe, has consumed most of their winter days—and the majority of their shared studio space in Bradley’s Heuser Art Center, where they teach 2D and 3D design, welding and casting. Stolz’s modern-day Navy Seal—“a big strapping man”—stands some six feet strong, saluting Willis’ Revolutionary War soldier. Soon, the two warriors will greet visitors at the VFW’s entryway on Sante Fe Avenue.

“We wanted a long, lean kind of man,” Willis explains, “because during the Revolutionary War, you didn’t have anybody with a lot of weight on them.” Commissions like this require a great deal of research—“that’s what [Fisher] and I love about it: you learn so much.”

She recalls her last commission, a bronze piece for the McDonough County Women’s Social Service Memorial Committee, commemorating the region’s early 20th-century, female pioneers of social activism. Installed last September in Macomb’s Chandler Park, Facing the Storm found Willis mining eBay for authentic black jet buttons from the Victorian era, popularized in the wake of Prince Albert’s 1861 death. “They put [mourning] in their fashion—it’s amazing!” she exclaims, delighted in illuminating this historical detail.

A statue of A.J. Robertson, Bradley University’s revered three-sport coach and athletic director, required sleuthing of another sort: how to reverse the aging process. “We had some photos, but we had to [portray] him a certain age,” she explains. “Those hands are actually his son’s, [who] was 70 when we cast him. But we had to bring him back to 50, so we learned all sorts of things. We also looked at the yearbooks… what was he wearing?” Gesturing toward the clay soldiers still in progress in the studio, she adds, “We ask ourselves, ‘What else can we translate from these periods of time?... And how do you create it?’”

The “tricorn” hat that adorns her soldier illustrates the sculptor’s challenge in achieving the right texture. “Underneath is a felt hat, but I had to hot-glue a big burlap strap over it before I could even think of putting clay onto it. I had to be able to push on it in order to get the curves right.” It’s the same type of clay used for automobile design in commercials, she notes. “I warm it up with a heat lamp; that’s the only way you can really push on it and apply it before it cools.

“It’s great for carving,” she adds. “I love carving.” And she excels at that as well, having taken it up while pursuing her master’s degree. “I get bored!” she states again. “I want to do things a little differently.”

The Casting Process
Underneath the clay is a literal stick figure, Willis says, outlining the process. “We measure the bones of the model and cut pipe sections. There’s a one-and-a-half-inch pipe inside that’s welded at each angle. Then to mass out this person, wood panels secure the pipes, and some 350 screws are put in the wood so the pressed clay stays in place.”

Once the life-sized clay is formed, it’s sectioned into about 40 pieces, and rubber molds, then fiberglass shells called mother molds, are constructed to help each section retain its shape. Out of these molds, the waxes will be cast. A customized gating system is made for each wax shell, based on how Willis wants the bronze to "flow" through the piece. “Since air pockets and bronze shrinkage can happen when the gating is done incorrectly, the importance of engineering is critical,” she says.

The mold is then heated upside-down in a burn-out kiln to melt the wax out of the ceramic shell. The result is a clean, interior negative space ready to be filled with bronze. “It takes two people to pour bronze into those white ceramic shells,” she notes. And it’s a hot job: the mold is heated to 1400° as the bronze reaches 2035°, and “everything must be timed perfectly for the pour to be successful.”

Finally, it’s the moment of the reveal. “We call it ‘Christmas,’” Willis says, as the excess ceramic shell is chipped away after the metal has cooled. Successful projects head to the table for gating removal, TIG [tungsten inert gas] welding, chasing [matching patterns the artist had in the clay] using air tools, polishing, patina [surface chemical] application, and a lacquer or wax seal.

The casting process requires faithful precision, and Willis is well attuned to the task. In fact, she’s one of only a handful of female sculptors in the nation who works completely on her own, from initial concept to the final bronze. “I just wanted to try it all—to do it all myself,” she explains. Perhaps it’s natural that, as an instructor, she fosters similar ambitions in her own students.

“I try to teach them to… not let anyone get in their way, and whatever you dream, you should do it,” she explains, harboring a twinge of regret over her late start as a working artist. “I love my background, and you have to have that experience to create art. I just wish there were more years in a lifetime.”

In the Moment
With another commission already in the works, Willis stresses the importance of remaining in the moment with each piece, “in the frame of mind that invites ideas to form.

“I like to get a lot of energies from different environments,” she explains. “When I do abstracts, it’s about relationships… [but] I also work intuitively, with curves. When I bend my steel, I like to look at it and see where it’s going. When it suddenly shows up, I know this is where it’s going, and I’ll weld it there and continue on.”

Of course, deadlines present some tension in that objective, she laughs, detailing some recent 12- and 14-hour workdays. Despite the time crunch, “I’m doing what I love,” she declares. “And if you’re doing what you love, you don’t mind spending 70 hours a week doing it.”

For the time being, it’s one project after another for Willis and Stolz. “After we finish these two, we start on abstract public art projects for Chicago… so we’ll flip from realism to bending rods and slumping glass.”

Metals are her favorite challenge, though Willis’ portfolio reveals a wide range: stainless steel and slumped glass beauties like Surge on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and Spanish Dancer, featured in the inaugural Sculpture Walk Peoria; Flight, a curvy, polished wood figure; and Four Forms of Self, a collection in wood, bronze, iron and aluminum, among many others.

Besides the inspiration she draws from varied mediums, Willis is driven by a larger purpose for her local projects. “I do realism bronzes because I feel it’s important for our area,” she explains. “We seem to be deficient in dedicating memorials to people who were important around here. I’m here for the next 20 years, and that’s my objective: to start ‘plopping down’ [important historical figures].” Like Betty Friedan, she offers.

And, just in case she gets bored with all that, Willis and her daughter just bought a historic, turn-of-the-century dwelling on Peoria’s West Bluff. “I painted the roof carnation pink,” she says with a grin. “We will work on it to make it a beauty. We have sculptures in the front yard, which is something new for the neighborhood, so we’re trying to elevate the community, too.”

With a resolute sparkle in her eye, she whips out an 18th-century-style musket, places it in the hands of her clay soldier, and poses for a photo. “I’m excited,” she says, smiling. “And this year is going to be even more exciting.” a&s