“I could say that I was almost an all-around image star,” Willie Stokes told an interviewer in 1990.’ Seventeen years later, there is no “almost” about it. Most everything his inventive eye falls upon is fair game for his art. Stokes may jumpstart his creative process by looking at TV Guide or wall paper designs by William Morris. He can find inspiration by thumbing through flower books or by “reaching out the door [to] draw people.” He is not limited by what he can see at the moment. Some compositions generate in his mind’s eye: he can conjure primordial landscapes or love-struck pairs kissing smack on the lips. There is no subject he will not tackle, nothing too serious that it cannot be viewed with humor.
Every artist is part alchemist, transforming raw materials into images that are unmistakably their own. Every mark that he or she puts down on a surface is as unique as a signature. Willie Stokes expresses himself with characteristic energy, demarking forms with boundaries that rush, waver, or coast as the situation dictates. The plants, people and creatures that populate his world are vivacious, cheery souls, willed into being by a mischievous hand undeterred by conditions contrary to fact.
For Stokes, creation is a two-step process—first finding, then “building”:
People always wonder, how does a person build a drawing, other than looking for imagery? It’s almost like you work with the one dotted line… [viewers don’t see that I] build a drawing from the middle of the drawing to the outside of it. It’s all built around that first line you draw…
Willie Stokes has been lucky enough to have had prescient mentors who recognized his talents and facilitated his career. As a teenager he encountered several teachers, including artist and Brandywine Graphic Workshop founder Allan Edmonds, who understood his artistic potential. Kippy Stroud, who spotted Stokes’ great gifts while he was still in high school, has fostered and encouraged his art for over three decades, providing him with employment and studio space at The Fabric Workshop and Museum that she established in 1977.
Stokes’ education included classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and many informal opportunities to learn. As a staff member of The Fabric Workshop, he has met a diverse group of artists who annually accept coveted invitations to work on projects there. Most of his co-workers at the Workshop are artists he has known for years—he thoughtfully celebrates their birthdays with individualized cards that picture them all, each identified with their names.
“Within every five years or so,” Stokes recollects, he would “see different ways of drawing” when he perused books on Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, for example. He regards this research as part of his working method: “Every time a new way of drawing is formed into a book, I admire it, practice it, always stressing the technique, creativity.” He particularly admires Picasso because the Spaniard altered his style over time, replacing his early representational imagery with cubism’s shifting viewpoints and fragmented. vision of the world. “[My] drawing over the years is always going to be improved because I’m going to see new things and look at other artists.”
Another historical figure he looked at carefully was Raoul Dufy, who “would always work with wiggly forms as well as different colors—not… everything [he did] looked like what a human person would look like.” It was Dufy’s “abstract way of painting,” his freedom to “change the format of what the human hand would look like” that Stokes valued. “I’m always thinking about…the squiggly line or scratch, why the artist uses them… Over time I always want to experiment with a new type of line.”
Portraits of celebrities appear frequently in his work. One of the first ones he did of this genre was a 1989 print of Grace Jones, Bette Midler and Cher, created at the famous New York print workshop founded by the master printmaker and teacher Bob Blackburn. A sheaf of Stokes’ recent drawings reveals such evidence of his devilish sense of humor as an image of Bill Cosby in a drag outfit with an enticing decollete, complete with red-enameled nails, purple hair and gold ball earrings. Another shows the unlikely duo of Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand. In Stokes’ Oscar awards 20O5, The Unforgettable Faces, he likely lifted the self-important headline and the galaxy of stars from a movie magazine. Here Beyonce appears four times, two with two sets of breasts; wordless thought balloons drift from her mouth tethered to twisting stalks.
Stokes is particularly interested in depicting movement as well as the passage of time, finding canny solutions to visual problems that have challenged artists for millennia. In some of his works, Stokes employs quick, repeated dashes or curves in the style of comics and graphic novels. Or he may playfully indicate a guy groping a gal with multiple hands to convey the action unfolding. A dragon may have two heads to spell out the act of turning in space. Another favored device is a loosey goosey shock absorber that may intervene between hand and arm or head and neck.
Stokes may scrutinize his environment to cull visual information or give wings to his fancy. Some of his figures are hermaphrodites with sausage-shaped genitals and halved-grapefruit breasts. In other drawings, eyeball/ boobs have iris/ nipples. One print series of cats uses both frontal and aerial views. The pets inhabit an unspecified space lit by a pendent light bulb; has Stokes here referenced Philip Guston’s late work? The ginger cat’s tail shoots straight up like a spouting oil well. Quivery lines do double duty as whiskers and as wiry lightning.
One of Stokes’ masterfully large works is the triptych he made during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Marin County, California in 1993. At its heart is a circle of brightly-dressed celebrants, cavorting in and on a variegated grey field. This delightful, spirited crew includes one gent kicking up his heels, suspended like an astronaut with his legs akimbo. Here is Matisse filtered through Stokes, who brought with him to California a reproduction of The Dance, which Kippy Stroud had brought to his attention.
Although he used many of the colors that Matisse favored—mauve, pink, yellow, ochre and brown— Stokes distributed them as he pleased. The jumping dancer wears a snazzy yellow cap, maroon shirt, apple green trousers and blue shoes. With typical insouciance, he let each of this fellow’s eyes gravitate to the edges of his face, achieving a Janus-like head that looks in two directions at once.
Like her nude counterpart on the left in the Matisse, Stokes’ similar but clothed figure artfully navigates the bend in the circle. As her torso spirals to the right, her legs advance the rhythmic, leftward flow of the dance. In Stokes’ version, she is a bodacious blond with a red shirt and bi-colored jeans: one pant leg is blue, the other mauve.
Ochre islands emerge from the sea of negative space between the dancers and the frame. These Stokes colonizes in the name of drawing, taking advantage of the terrain as a site for minor vignettes. In one, a recording session is in progress. A woman with ear phones and a mic sits with her feet propped up on a stool. We are not the only ones looking at her—nearby a cameraman with a slight goatee and locks punctuated with barrettes documents the moment. On the left stands an assistant, seen from behind as she holds a steaming cup of coffee. Whether this sophisticated repoussoir figure was harvested fully-formed or developed in his imagination over time is irrelevant; either way, it is a brilliant ploy to have our eyes enter the composition by coming in over the shoulder of a figure. The image star is at the top of his game.