Robert Willis: A man of many talents
Robert Willis may be 90 years old, but after talking with him I was convinced that 90 is the new 60. Robert has been the artist in residence and caretaker of the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony for more than 20 years and is loved and remembered by the many artists who have stayed at Dorland during this time period. In addition to doing much work around the colony (like sprucing up trails and chopping wood), Robert is a working artist whose watercolors have been exhibited all over the country and the world. He also currently teaches painting classes to a group of enthralled students.
The Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is an artists’ retreat located on more than 300 acres of wooded, rolling hills above the Temecula Valley. The land was purchased during the 1930s by Ellen and Robert Dorland, along with environmentalist Barbara Horton, who joined with the Dorlands to found the Arts Colony in 1979.
My interview with Robert was captivating. He is an engaging, articulate man and I could have listened to him talk about his fascinating life for hours. Here is just a brief summary:
Robert was born in rural upstate New York and recalls being “a depression kid” during his teenage years. His father died when he was 16 and his mother supported Robert and his brother and sister in part by teaching piano lessons for 50 cents a lesson. After his father’s death, Robert helped support his family with a variety of jobs like working in a coal yard and driving for a veterinarian.
Robert always loved drawing. His high school art teacher encouraged him to submit a portfolio to the famous Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he was thrilled to be accepted. He attended Pratt for more than a year when Pearl Harbor changed his life. He joined the Army’s Tenth Mountain Infantry Division, which had been looking for men who could ski, survive cold weather, and had experience with animals. Robert fit the bill on all counts. He was eventually sent to Europe, where he fought through the Alps in Italy and was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service in action.
Before shipping off to Europe, he married and eventually had six children. (He now has 13 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.) Perhaps it was his children who inspired him to write and publish six children’s books. One of his books won the prestigious Follett Award in children’s literature. He also applied his artistic ability to becoming a graphic artist, a career that helped support his large family.
For ten years, after his children had grown up, Robert lived in France. He primarily spent his time in France writing a novel and painting the gorgeous landscapes around him. His watercolors hang in each room of the Pasifleur Hotel in Vergez, France, the village that is the source of Perrier water. He has also exhibited and won awards in a variety of shows and his paintings grace the walls of many fortunate collectors throughout America.
After he returned to the U.S., Robert stayed at Dorland as a resident and then became its caretaker. In 2004, when a massive fire devastated Dorland, he lost everything, including all the paintings he had stored there. For quite a long time, he lived in his VW van on the Dorland property while he helped manage the colony’s restoration efforts. Robert and his wife, Janice, also an accomplished artist, live on the property and care for it. Their dedication and knowledge of Dorland’s history have inspired many appreciative residents throughout the years. It is also wonderful that Robert’s sons and grandson frequently help with some of the heavy work on the property.
Robert has also appreciated the opportunity to meet so many artists from around the world. He says, “Artists who are serious about their work find that Dorland’s serenity and isolation can be very conducive to the creative process.”
Throughout his life, Robert has found time to write, draw and paint. His paintings usually depict dramatic landscapes that capture the feeling and mood of the setting. Robert eloquently expresses why watercolor painting has always beckoned him, when he says, “The watercolor medium is elusive and capricious, and it taunts us with the promise of glorious possibilities. My infatuation with it goes on and on.”
For those of us who are fortunate to have met Robert, our infatuation with him will also go on and on. It is not an exaggeration to describe Robert as representing the heart and soul of Dorland Mountain Arts Colony.