Groundbreaking Insights on Creative Professionals

Willy Bo Richardson

Willy Bo Richardson headshot2017 Accelerator Fellow

Where did you grow up?
Santa Fe, New Mexico.

When/how did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?

It was 1994, and I was a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin. I had returned from six months in India and was still in culture shock, but I realized that performance art and painting were very grounding and meaningful to me. I did not think about my future then—only getting through the day—but as time went on, I knew I had to make a decision. After my undergrad years, I was trying to decide between writing and painting. I wrote a really bad coming-of-age novel, and the following year I checked myself into graduate school for painting at Pratt Institute in New York.

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Where do you currently live/work, and how would you describe the arts community there?

Willy at work (Photo byJen Fong)
Willy at work (Photo byJen Fong)

Ten years ago, my wife and I moved to Santa Fe from New York to slow things down, be close to my family, and raise our daughter. Santa Fe has a thriving arts community and access to bright hardworking artists, intellectuals, and other creatives, but when we first moved here, I was concerned that I might not grow as an artist away from New York. The information exchange is slower here, but what I’ve found was that I have time to work through my ideas.

And I also have access to the minds of some big players on the world stage who’ve moved here to focus less on success and more on being happy. It would’ve been impossible for me to meet these people in the context of New York, but here in Santa Fe, we hang out in the garden together, and everybody is wearing flip-flops.

How would you describe your art to someone who’s never seen it?

There are Platonic and real versions of my introduction.

In the real version, I say something like, “I make colorful abstract paintings.” This is the friendly answer I’d give to someone I just met on a ski lift—the equivalent of a financial advisor telling me that she works at Schwab. It’s a reference point, but one with almost no information.

If the conversation were to continue, I’d add something like, “I work with real-world limitations—the laws of gravity and colors, creating within a restricted field that I have simultaneously imposed on myself and rebel against. It’s through limitations and restrictions that we often define ourselves and discover our freedom.”

In the Platonic version, however, I’d say, “I distill disturbing emotions into their most basic elements, and then transform them. These wisdoms meet, mix, and blend in new ways, bringing into the world ideas whose time has come.“ This may sound pretentious or lofty, but it’s how I think.

What do you hope to communicate to your audience?

Music To Drive To 14 by Willy Bo Richardson
Music To Drive To 14 by Willy Bo Richardson

Abstraction and ideals—such as beauty and truth—are more closely linked than we often realize. I want to help people connect with what is so easily and transparently available to them.

Last year, I shipped five paintings to a gallery. Only four arrived. The paintings had been properly packed and insured, but the delivery company didn’t want to pay for the missing piece. Long story short, I had my first experience of suing a company. It was very unpleasant. On the way to court, Prince’s song Kiss came on the radio. Despite being in the middle of dealing with the stupidest bureaucratic mess, when that song came on I started bopping around and singing in the car. So what happened? How did I get back into the groove so quickly? Because someone like Prince worked hard to bring me that experience.

I want to bring a certain experience into the world. It’s a little bit like Kiss, but in the visual realm. It’s a contemplative groove that permeates over time.

What’s been your biggest business challenge?

There are SO many! On the business side, every task seems to involve re-inventing the wheel and doing it myself—creating newsletters, building a website, doing SEO (search-engine optimization), reaching out to curators, finding my creative partners and audience, etc. I am doing all of these things without much guidance.

Tell us about a business success and what you did to achieve it.

In 2008, I had a Flash website. A friend of mine told me to scrap it and build an SEO-friendly site. This led me down a rabbit hole that involved many late nights spent creating a site, blogging, link-building, and learning the SEO rules. It was hard work, but it paid off. Now, people contact me with sales inquiries, sign up for my newsletter, and discover my work online. I have worked towards and achieved a few very high-quality keywords, such as “Phillips de Pury Watercolors.” Type those keywords into Google and see what comes up!

How do you feel about today’s technology (tools for your business, for creating your art, or both), and has it altered your way of doing business?

If it weren’t for the Internet, I wouldn’t be a professional working artist today. Most of the sales I’ve made—and the relationships I have with art dealers, galleries, and consultants—were built on the ability to share JPEG files by email.

What do you think about the state of today’s art market?

Two major things have changed the way the art industry works today: the Internet and art fairs. They have created a more decentralized market, which has both positive and negative impacts. Artists have a greater chance to reach their audience without having to court galleries first, and most purchases are made nationally.

The galleries that have adapted to these changes are in mutually beneficial partnerships with artists. My main concern about these relationships is that they can be short-lived, and their focus is more often on sales than long-term goals. My long-term goals include showing complete bodies of work in series together, and bringing in curators and writers who can shed light on my paintings, both for myself and for the audience. When sales are made to be a priority over exhibitions, that leaves me as the only one who sees these different series in a greater context.

Clockwork for Oracles 11 by Willy Bo Richardson
Clockwork for Oracles 11 by Willy Bo Richardson

Give us an example of how you balance studio time with business time.

I usually work on one aspect at a time. I’ll go into studio mode and prepare stretchers for a week, then catch up on office work for a week, then paint for two weeks (doing minimal office/email work), then back to office work. I can’t say it’s a one-to-one ratio of office-to-studio time, but I’ve found that this strategy works better for me than breaking up office and studio time throughout the week or day. The mentality required to carry out my business tasks is entirely different than the way I approach my studio time. In the studio, I’m a mad-scientist shaman. At the computer, I’m a rational entrepreneur.

How have you evolved as an artist?

Over the years, I have become confident that the way I see the world is unique and worth sharing.

How have you evolved as an entrepreneur?

I have picked up a lot of skills along the way—learning from colleagues and sharing my expertise with them every chance I get. I am a team player.

What role do artists play in our society? What role SHOULD they play?

Artists are both court jesters and ministers to the king—we should be laughed at AND taken seriously. Artists bring beauty, fresh perspectives, and new information into the world. We help our society examine life.

When I am at a cocktail party and tell someone that I’m an artist, I generally get one of two reactions: either they shoot me a look of pity or just the opposite, expressing admiration and intrigue. Depending on the way the conversation moves, I will let them have their preconceived notions or try to steer them toward a place in the middle, a more realistic point of view.

Anything else you would like us to know?

After 20 years of exposure to oil painting mediums, last year I became sensitized to solvents, and my body could no longer tolerate breathing in these toxins. After just a small amount of exposure time, I’d get a severe headache and a feeling of nausea for hours. This development turned my teaching and painting practice upside down. I stopped teaching, and had to revamp my studio and the media I use.

I want to encourage people to take a closer look at chemical safety in art school and studios, so I wrote a blog post about my experiences and the solutions I devised.

For more information on Willy Bo Richardson, see his official CHF bio.

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