The Commons
The Arts

John Willis wins Guggenheim fellowship

Samples of Willis’s work can be found at jwillis.net.

Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).


DUMMERSTON—John Willis would rather people did not make a fuss because he has won a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.

“I am not trying to be humble,” he asserts, “but getting the prize is the luck of the draw. Not one person is so much better.”

Dede Cummings, a board member of The In-Sight Photography Project that Willis co-founded, says when the board brought out champagne to toast the success of the Marlboro College professor of photography, he was embarrassed and more concerned about the many applicants who had lost than his own victory.

Even so, he is actually thrilled to win the award, announced on April 7 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Willis, of Dummerston, was one of 180 scholars, artists, and scientists selected this year as fellows from the United States and Canada.

The fellowships are one-time-only grants made for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 12 months, providing a block of time in which fellows can work with as much creative freedom as possible.

Willis describes his photography as “a mix of documentary and human images which comment on the human condition.”

The application process was arduous. Willis had to submit 20 pieces of photography and his two books, plus, he says, “a fairly complex essay on my life’s work, which includes a narrative bio.”

An MFA graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Willis has taught at Marlboro since 1991. His photography has been widely exhibited and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

He appreciates the fellowship not because it draws attention to him, but because it draws attention to his work and the issues he cares most about.

The award also enables him to devote more time to the the In-Sight Photography Project, a volunteer program in Brattleboro offering free classes for area youth to explore self-expression through photography, which he cofounded. He serves as the organization’s executive director.

He will also spend time with In-Sight’s Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Program, a nonprofit program that teaches photography to adolescents, regardless of their ability to pay.

Willis seems not unduly humble, but calm, insightful, and passionate about his beliefs.

“Photography provides me with a visual tool for exploration and communication,” he says. “The ways we communicate with each other and the world around us have always been major points of interest and contention throughout my life.”

He laments that it has become increasingly difficult to get attention for severe social problems. Willis blames this phenomenon on the media, which he says refuses to give any in-depth analysis to important concerns.

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