J. R. WILLIS: GALLUP’S RENAISSANCE MAN
By Ernie Bulow
A fellow photographer once said of Willis, “Willis was entirely self-confident. He was just different. I think flakiness is an art.” If eccentricity is indeed an art, just add it to the list of his accomplishments.
His name appeared regularly in Gallup newspapers and in 1987 a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal filled in some of the blanks in a long article.
A Gallup old-timer told me years ago he had known Willis when he was in town between 1918 and 1931. Willis was a diminutive man with a small, waxed mustache who wore spats, capes, and carried a cane he would twirl as he walked.
Remember, these were the days when gunfights still erupted on the street from time to time. Much of the population was made up of rough miners and rowdy cowboys. How could they resist such a tempting target?
There are different versions of how J. R. (Joseph Roy, if anyone cares) came to stay in Gallup, but my favorite was recounted by Scott Peeler, a grandson on the mother’s side. Apparently Willis never married.
According to Peeler, J. R. was on the vaudeville circuit giving “chalk-talks,” which involved lightning fast drawings on a chalkboard as he talked. The grandson gives 1917 as the year but a newspaper article from the Independent says November of 1918.
A local photographer, H. H. Walker had just died in the great flu epidemic and he bought the place from Walker’s widow. By that year Willis already had a degree of national fame. He drew political cartoons during the Spanish-American war, did fashion drawings for the Atlanta Constitution. He became one of the earliest animators in California (Hollywood was just happening).
His own cartoon character was called Rastus ‘Fraid-o’-Nothin’. Unfortunately that name brings up some rather racist images.
He did formally study art, mid-career, and continued to draw and paint throughout his life. He discovered that his painting sold better as postcards and he established a major postcard company while still in Gallup. Strangely, his photographs were not all that sophisticated, being done as references for drawings.
He was well established in Gallup by the time of the first Ceremonial and took many photos, documenting odd things like the free barbecue, for example. In 1920 he was photographing automobile races at the location of the first Ceremonial and went out on the track to get better shots.
He was struck by one of the race cars when it turned over rounding a corner. Willis had both legs broken, his shoulder dislocated and his face cut and bruised. At article in the Independent added, “Physicians, however, say he will recover.”
In 1922 the Vaudeville circuit was still going strong and the Rex Theatre in Gallup had him paint “a complete setting of stage scenery . . . the designs are original and have a very attractive and beautiful appearance from all parts of the house.
In 1928 a newspaper headline read, “Willis Stocks 10,000 Post Cards; Ceremonial Views.” The color printed cards sold ten views for a quarter, five packets for a dollar. The real photograph cards, heavily collected today (known as RPPCs) were sold for more.
Along the way Willis’s studio became quite an enterprise. A half-page ad in 1927 blared, “Welcome Ceremonial Visitors TO GALLUP’S ONLY CURIO STORE. Largest and Best Selected Stock Indian Goods Ever Assembled You Will Realize This the Minute You Step INTO OUR STORE.”
From the beginning he had rented Kodaks to visitors so he got the processing business from the exposed film. He was not only an all-around artist, but an excellent businessman as well.
At one time Willis hired as an assistant a “photographer of repute in the Southwest” named T. A. Ring. The news reporting was a little looser in those days and the reporter said, “He is a painstaking careful workman, having beer brought up in a photo studio.” Ring’s father had been a well-known photographer in the old Daguerreotype format.
Though he left Gallup in 1931 to open a studio in Albuquerque, he was still a presence in the town. Under the WPA during the depression, he was hired to do seven murals depicting the Spanish settlement of New Mexico in the hallways of Gallup High School.
The murals were three feet by six and three feet by eight. They were lost when the building burned. I have never been able to find a reproduction of them.
Later Robert Katson, owner of the Court Café, an Albuquerque landmark, worked out a deal with Willis to paint a series of murals for him, in exchange for free meals. The subject matter was of Southwestern Indians from Taos to Zuni.
Willis drug out the job for fifteen months before Katson said he had to wrap it up, he was running up large tabs. The Court Café burned down in 1968. It was considered by some to be his greatest accomplishment.
His Albuquerque studio was located in the downtown, not far from
Old Town on Rio Grande Boulevard just south of Central. Once again his astute business sense was evident. On his large sized business card he made this offer: “RENT A PAINTING.” The customer could go with the rent-to-buy option, or trade the painting for a new one any time he got bored with the old. It isn’t recorded how successful this was, but the idea was ahead of its time.
At that age, around 60, he launched a new career as a designer of houses in the Country Club district, on a street now called Willis Place Southwest. The houses and apartments were hacienda style with sunken gardens and all the Southwestern trimmings. He doesn’t seem to have been wealthy, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
All through his life he was always hungry for attention and recognition and would talk about himself and his work for hours on end. He passed away in 1960.
A large oil painting of a mesa (sporting his famous signature) hangs in the main room of Octavia Fellin Public Library.