Benjamin Todd Wills


I write letters to prisoners. I have done this for years now, and have written literally thousands of letters. Somewhere along the way the correspondence gave birth to an art project—an aggregation of objects that has provided the source material for sculptural work that I have been creating since 2013. 

That year, I received a paper airplane from one of my correspondents. The plane itself—the folds, the textual content, the illustrations it carried—was loaded with messages, but because it came from a prisoner, the object carried an even deeper meaning. An object that would typically connect me to childhood and creativity had been transformed into an object representing sadness, urgency, and pain. That plane (and the many more that followed) was a vehicle of escape, missed opportunity, and in some cases, rebellion for its creator.

As the collection grew so did the similarities between these prisoner-created objects. Each one is different than the next, however each one is immediately recognizable as an artifact from a place of incarceration.

Each inmate has a unique way of designing and decorating their plane. They vary in size. They are constructed from a wide array of papers. Some are made from notebook paper, some from drawing paper, commissary lists, denied appeals, behavioral write-ups. They are covered in poems, pen work, drawings, letters, color. They vary in theme from regret to hostility, from bravado to humility. Collectively, they give insight into a world separated by “temporal, spatial, and cultural borders.”

When the collection is displayed, I organize the airplanes in a grid, each one-foot away from the next. After a viewer’s close up and far away investigation, these objects translate into a conversation that is charged, enlightening, often heated, but never uninteresting.

Automatic Drawing Machines.  

I’m really interested in old school performance and animation techniques, like zoetropes or the Gilbert and George singing sculptures, so for me, the drawing machines have a few functions. Additionally, I don’t come from a film, or animation background, so I really have to rely on a combination sculpture or multiples to be able to experiment with this world.

In this treadmill piece, I have drawn straight up and down while playing with the speed on the control panel to the left.  With the machine turned on, my up and down mark is transformed into a landscape.


The potentiometer is set at zero, so when you approach the piece you can set it to whatever speed you would like to, and from a completely safe position. They are very approachable for curiosity interaction. I also chose to retain the emergency, automatic pull switch, in the pieces, as to pay homage to the former existence of the treadmill, and give another clue as to how to interact with the machine. I want my drawing machines to be recognizable as treadmills, so that that everyone is comfortable, and confident in knowing how to make them function. So the potentiometer and the stop switch are both fully functional.

Second, as the performers make marks, they begin making animations. Lines begin to spiral, text becomes blurred, and small drawings can be strategically placed to create therapid succession of images, producing a motion illusion.

As the title suggests, the machines are also making drawings. I’m interested in photo stills of the tread itself, after it’s been marked. As I’ve begun collecting images of the blurred drawings, I’m finding new ways that these images could be incorporated into the next incarnation of this project, furthering to possibilities these machines can have.

A Lifers World.

8' x 6' x 10' Drawing. Charcoal.

When I began writing to inmates, many of the first responses came from people who had been housed in solitary confinement.

Over the years, I have collected a large number of cell drawings. This work is a scale representation of one of those drawings.

Different from Front of the Cell, this project had two walls on casters that would open, allowing for a more literal and performative read of my source material.


Front of the Cell (8x6)

8' x 6' x 10' Drawing. Charcoal.

When I began writing to inmates, many of the first responses came from people who had been housed in solitary confinement.

Over the years, I have collected a large number of cell drawings. This work is a scale representation of one of those drawings.

Greetings From...

One of the more gratifying and heartbreaking statements that I read far to regularly is, "Your letter was the first time my name was called at mail call."

In February of 2016, I traveled to Anamosa State Prison in Iowa, toured its old facility and bought a ceramic bowl that was made in-house through one of their craft programs. I also ended up talking with their wonderful administration, who were more kind and receptive than I ever imagined a prison administration would be. Their kindness, and open thinking toward my work made Anamosa State Prison an obvious choice for a project I had long wanted to make.

Greetings From is an animation, made from 858 postcards that I letter pressed, and then custom stamped and colored. Each one, addressed to a different inmate at the Anamosa State Prison. I spread out sending each one, usually in clusters of 10-30 so that each inmate in the prison would be named in mail call, at least once.

On the back, I introduced myself to them and asked if they would be willing to send me the name of someone they have had a positive impact on. This would allow for the project to continue. My hope is that as the responses come in, we will be able to slowly create a new narrative about who these people are and what they represent to their friends, families and the communities that they are from. Additionally, if the individual decides to not participate with my project, my hope as this postcard at least leads him into an afternoon of considering some of the more positive actions they have taken in their lives.

Postcard 123

Postcard 670

Postcard 724

Benjamin Todd Wills

Cargo Collective 2017 — Frogtown, Los Angeles