OURAY – When Belinda and Bob Willis came to Ouray from Pelatchie, Miss., they didn’t leave the South behind. They brought some of its finer aspects with them.
Besides the genteel drawl, Bob, a well-known woodcarver, furniture maker and artist, brought a sense of self-sufficiency that he learned from his grandfather, Tilton Willis, a cotton farmer who built his own home as well as furniture and other goods for himself and his neighbors. It was Tilton who taught Bob how to work with wood – everything from cutting fence posts to building furniture.
“Growing up in rural Mississippi, you do what you can to entertain yourself, so I built sailboats and aeroplanes,” Bob said.
Later a sculptor, Bob, young and full of energy, used a chisel and mallet to create pieces such as the lithesome figure of a gull in flight that he carved from a solid log of sturdy walnut. Not surprisingly, he eventually developed bursitis, which made the chiseling painful and difficult. He learned to use a lathe and, in keeping with his grandfather’s lessons, built his own lathe when he developed a need for a tool that was not available commercially.
“There was nothing on the market at the time that was large enough to do what I was trying to do,” Bob said. “I needed something that could turn a 300-pound block of wood.”
So, with nothing but desire and his own wits to guide him, Bob spent a year in a machine shop, designing and building his own lathe. He still uses the machine to this day.
Bob and his wife of 30 years, Belinda, who hails from Jackson, Miss., met through mutual friends. They began a family, with two sons, Til, now 28, a singer-songwriter and painter, and Cody, 22, a photographer and snowboarder. Keeping with Tilton’s tradition, the couple built their own home in Pelatchie, where they still spend time each summer. Finally, they set out to find a new market for Bob’s work.
A commission to build art floors, made of hardwood and inlaid with fine designs, took the couple to Vermont, while another in Taos brought the couple out West. It was during that trip that they “discovered the jewel of Ouray,” Belinda said.
Belinda, who had just begun a new career as a teacher, immediately landed a job at the Ouray School, where she still teaches preschool and elementary music.
“I hope I’ve brought some joy and music to Ouray over all these years,” she said. “It certainly has brought joy to my life.”
The Willises moved to Ouray, put their sons in school, opened a gallery downstairs from the Cascade Grocery, now O’Brien’s, and they’ve been here ever since.
Now located at 305 6th Avenue, Willis Gallery is a showcase of family artistry. While Bob’s vessels, sculptures and wall-hangings are the centerpiece of the family portfolio, there’s space in the gallery for the whole family. Til’s six CDs are for sale there, and his attractive abstract paintings hang on the walls. Cody’s photography also finds a home at the Willis Gallery. One thing you won’t see are the guitars that Bob has made for Til and other family members. A portfolio image of The Black Rose, a beautiful instrument, reveals the mastery that Bob has achieved in the technical and demanding world of the luthier.
In her free time, Belinda loves to hike and gets out regularly with women’s hiking groups from Ouray and Ridgway. With six albums and several cross-country tours under his belt, Til is getting ready for a run of concerts in Denver starting on Aug. 18. Cody has moved back to Ouray for the time being and is working construction and doing photography. For his part, Bob said, “I have only one dream and that’s to build a Japanese-style timber frame house.”
“When you love your work, that’s your passion, your hobby, your everything,” Belinda commented.
“And I’m lucky that after 35 years, it’s still my passion,” Bob said.