Oct 20

One-on-One with muralist Willis Humphrey aka NOMO

by: Steve Weinik

For the better part of the last decade, artist, designer and educator Willis Humphrey aka Nomo has been building a deep body of work with Mural Arts. His latest, Staircases and Mountaintops: Ascending Beyond the Dream, will be dedicated this week, as part of Mural Arts Month, and was described in more detail on our blog last week.

Other recent projects with Mural Arts include A Mother’s Love, a mural that reflects on the challenges of violence and the power of a mother’s love in our society, and Our City, Our Vets, which, in partnership with Warrior Writers and Phillip Adams, sought to support veterans returning to our city. We sat down with Willis at his studio to talk about his beginnings, current work and process.

Tell us a little about yourself and your work.

I was born in Biloxi, Mississippi. My dad was in the Air Force. I moved around quite a bit. We lived in Italy, Texas, Japan, Arkansas . . . a little bit of everywhere. Every three to four years we would relocate.

I’ve been doing art since I was 9 or 10 . . . I just turned 40.

Happy birthday!

[Laughs] Thanks.

After the military, I went to school for graphic design and have been working professionally as an artist for 15 years. I started doing murals about seven years ago. With graphic design, I was doing some creative stuff . . . but it was usually corporate, so I was being creative, but there wasn’t a soulful connection with the artwork.

How did you start with Mural Arts?

I went through the Muralist Training Program with Dave McShane about seven years ago. It was like, this is where I can merge my art that I like to do, and get paid, and be a part of community engagement and have a voice with a broader range of people.

Can you tell us about your current project?

I’ve been working with the Philadelphia Prison System through the Restorative Justice Program. It’s been a motivating experience, working with those guys, to get to know them. People have preconceived notions of how certain populations are. All of us do. But once you really get to work with and know them, they’re really solid guys.

How does the collaboration work with the PPS team?

I design the mural with input from the community and Mural Arts. I have the framework set up, and the guys from PPS learn the system of production, from the priming to the preparation to the painting.

I painted the children’s wall with more colorful hues and tones for vibrancy and energy, but it’s basically a geometric pattern of staircases and mountaintops. The staircases represent a mode of elevation in society or in oneself, and the mountaintops are symbolizing the heights that you can get to, but they’re very geometric. Once you learn how to feel the space and cut the lines sharp, anybody can be proficient.

I’m homing in on this [looks to another part of the mural he’s working on in the Amber Art & Design studio]. This will be on a new senior citizens center as part of a project with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center. They wanted to focus on the legacy and history of African-Americans. This is going to be a full length shot of the front line of a march, optically coming out into the street.

Thanks so much for your work, and thank you for your time.

Photos by Steve Weinik and Valerie Caesar

Last updated: Dec 3, 2018

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