Humanity on the inside: Artist Benjamin Wills reaches behind bars for inspiration

When Benjamin Wills picked up the phone in 2011 and heard that a friend from his music scene received a 25-year prison sentence, he was with his dad, a man 25 years older than himself.

“I looked over at him, and it was like, if this was me, the next time I got out of prison, I would look like my dad,” Wills says.

This was the second time someone close to Wills would become a prisoner. First, his high school history teacher went to prison for having sex with his students. Then his friend received a sentence for second degree murder—he had been taking heroin with a girl who died in an overdose.

Wills started writing letters to both his friend and his teacher, to let them know he still supported them—that their lives were not the sum of the actions that led there. Prison seemed like an unimaginable situation, and as the correspondence continued, Wills grew increasingly interested in the day-to-day life in prison. The crimes themselves were never something he fixated on. Instead, he wondered how prison affected the inmates and what their lives could be like in these new confines. Wanting to know more, he searched on the internet for a list of people in prison he could write to and stumbled upon, a website that lists inmates looking for pen pals.

Artist Ben Wills outside his art studio. -- Photo by Adam Burke
Artist Ben Wills outside his art studio. — Photo by Adam Burke

“I started writing these letters saying, ‘Hey, my name’s Ben. What’s going on in prison?’” Wills says. “Then they started returning letters to me, and the content was so rich it became almost addictive.”

Wills quickly found himself pen pals with around 40 prisoners. They wrote to him about prison violence, sexuality, boredom, whether or not they were guilty, who was really guilty and the problems in the American criminal justice system.

Their stories fascinated Wills: the lives lived in eight-by-six foot cells, full of strange details. In prison, mirrors have bars over the glass; whenever prisoners see themselves, they are always in a cage. Privacy is constantly under threat of shakedown, when prison guards search for contraband such as drugs, pornography, a shiv. These letters from strangers became stories Wills immersed himself in.

“They became narrators for this world I wasn’t welcome in, or didn’t have access to,” he says.

After about a year of writing letters, Wills moved to Atlanta in 2012 to focus on his artwork. Originally from Colorado, he went on tour with a rock band after high school, then attended the University of Georgia from 2008-2012, where he got interested in art, particularly sculpture. Now working as a blacksmith in Atlanta, he spent his time applying for grants for his artwork. He wrote to his pen pals in prison, asking if they had ideas for sculptural work he could do. One wrote back and sent a paper airplane, saying, “As far as sculpture goes, I don’t think I can help that much. This is about as good as we can do in prison.”

Photo by Adam Burke
Objects from inmates are the foundation of Ben Wills’ installations. — Photo courtesy the artist

Flying the airplane around his studio, Wills realized the airplane itself could be his art. He started writing to more prisoners around the country, asking for paper airplanes, and a few months later, he received a grant from Idea Capital Atlanta to continue the project and find a venue to display the paper airplanes. By the time he received the grant, he had nearly forgotten about applying for it. Instead, he continued the project on his own. He once snuck into a gallery at the University of Georgia on Thanksgiving Day just to have a place to display the airplanes, photograph them and take them all down again. With help from Idea Capital, he was able to put the airplanes on display at The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta, a hybrid space for art, performance, science, design and technology.

Now a graduate student at the University of Iowa School of Art, Wills has collected over 200 paper airplanes, stored in boxes in his studio. On display last semester, they spread across an entire wall, each casting a shadow of the same basic shape, but colored-in or folded with infinite variation.

One airplane is covered in yellow smiley faces, with a few sad faces sprinkled here and there across the paper. One came in pieces to be assembled, like a model. One has an enigmatic message scribbled into the hidden, folded section: “the development of my mind and the ability to control my emotions.” Each is an expression of the individual whose fingers creased the paper, tucked it into an envelope and sealed it, all within a prison’s walls.

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Now Wills also asks prisoners for drawings of their cells, which he plans to collect in a book. The drawings all depict essentially identical spaces, but they come on different colored papers, some with 3D shading, some as birds’ eye views with everything labeled. “Bed mat is about 1½ inches thick,” one reads.

Wills took one of these drawings and built it to its real-life dimensions, projecting the drawing onto the walls and tracing it in charcoal. Stepping inside feels like entering a strange, cartoon world, where one is immediately aware of the confines of the space—eight feet long, six feet wide and ten feet high. Wills says that at times, even building it felt crippling.

“I can’t understand what the thinking is in, ‘This person’s super violent, why don’t we put him in solitary confinement for a year and see how it goes?’” he says.

This spring, Wills will conduct Write a Letter to a Prisoner workshops at the University of Iowa Main Library on the first Tuesday of each month through May. The workshops are free and open to the public. He has an event scheduled in Madison, Wis. on Mar. 26, and hopes to also hold events in Ames, Iowa, St. Louis and Chicago.

The workshops encompass the heart of what all of Wills’ artwork is about: that prisoners are people. Their humanity is not diminished by the actions of one moment, however violent. Most of the prisoners Wills writes to are convicted of murder. Some discuss the details of the crime, some claim innocence and others don’t mention it, but for Wills, it’s not important. His focus is on the individual in prison—their day-to-day lives, thoughts and dreams.

“People are lonely,” Wills says. “That’s the common theme. Inside of prison, people are starved for communication. If I send ten letters, I usually get eleven back.”

It’s not an exaggeration—prisoners now hear about Wills through friends or fellow inmates and write to him with no prior contact. Many feel forgotten and abandoned; many have never heard their name at mail call. When they hear that someone might be interested in their lives, they are desperate to have their stories noticed.

“We’re part of a society that sends people to prison for life sentences when they’re 18,” Wills says. “I think we have some kind of responsibility to take care of the human that is there. No matter what someone has done, addressing them as a human can be life changing for these people.”

By hosting the workshops, and by displaying the airplanes and cell drawings he collects, Wills hopes to create connections between people inside and outside of prison.

“Art can’t solve anything, but it can ask a question; it can bring up a topic,” Wills says. “I hope my work is in some way directing the narrative about these people once they go to prison. The idea that these people are still individuals, that they need positive contact—that’s what I hope my audience gets out of it.”

Anne Easker lives and writes in Iowa City. She is always on the lookout for a good story. Send her yours and she might write it down: This article was originally published in Little Village issue 193.