At one point, Maggie Willis envisioned being a genetic engineer. “I really love science and how things work, and the building blocks of life,” says the Arizona native. But she found an unconventional way of expressing this same sentiment in art, and found a stronger pull towards the creative process. She grew up in a small town in eastern Oregon, then went east to earn a BFA at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, where she studied painting, sculpture, and printmaking. “I was not the most talented woman there by any stretch of the imagination,” says Willis, but her hard work and dedication paid off, as she graduated valedictorian of her class. Since then, Willis has used her passion and talent as an artist to better the community.
This year, Willis is one of five recipients of the mayor’s artist awards. According to the Utah Arts Festival, “this year’s recipients are not only talented artists but are using their creativity to confront issues that challenge our community … Salt Lake City’s quality of life has improved due to their tireless work.” With these qualifications, Willis is an obvious choice for the award, as her lifetime of work has impacted and transformed the minds of the people she has worked with.
When looking at her work, the breadth of mediums and subject matter range from fauvist-like portraits and landscapes in oil, to community installations made from upcycled junk, to intricate, free-handed mandalas. Regardless of the Willis work one may view, all of them have a unique zest of the artist’s personality in them. Her works walk the fine line between eclectic and comprehensive, and they all feel lived-in. This uniqueness transcends from her personal practice to community installations she coordinates and arranges.
Willis’ career path has taken her all over the valley since coming to Salt Lake City in 2005. From focusing on her personal practice, to festival jobs, to eventually becoming the interim director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art at one point, Willis has helped the community in various capacities. Currently, she is the art director at the Eva Carlston Academy, where she works with troubled teenage girls and coordinates their fine arts activities. “I love reinvigorating things in their lives and helping them to heal through art and realize their emotions in this way,” she says.
This is not the first time Willis has worked with school-aged individuals, and she is an advocate for helping students to realize every aspect of the creative practice. “Process is more important than the actual outcome,” says Willis. “I’m interested in revealing to my students the productive struggle of how to make something work … of how challenging creativity strengthens their ability to problem solve and think critically and practically, not only in art but in everything.”
Willis also cites community installation as one of her favorite things to do, as she believes “getting away from consumerism and more towards conceptualism where the experience is the valuable takeaway rather than the actual object” is an important lesson that everyone should learn, for the betterment of themselves and the world. She has been a regular at the Utah Arts Festival, where she has managed the activities at the youth-oriented Art Yard.
As for what’s next, Willis cites intention in every aspect of her life, from her art to her garden, to her body. “I want to subtly influence people through art and bring awareness to things in a way that is not shameful and argumentative.” Following the mantra “follow your deepest heartbreak,” Willis says, “the thing that breaks your heart the most — if you can bring awareness to that … you can change the world.”
Willis will receive the award on June 21 at the Utah Arts Festival.
Kiki Karahalios studies art history as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. Her research interests include 18th and 19th century European and American art.