Artist Will Ryan’s life stretches the definition of extraordinary. A singular mix of musician, composer, commercial photographer and visual artist, he keeps what’s most important to him close by. In his Amagansett home and studio, there are suspended sculptures that dangle in the breeze, paintings in process, instruments within reach and a recording studio at the ready. It wouldn’t be unusual to catch a listen to some of his newest songs poised for official release on his next CD.
His dance beyond the ordinary doesn’t end there: he’s a shaman, a cancer survivor, a poet, a performer, and a devoted friend who appreciates the community of artists that surrounds him on the East End.
In a sense, it feels like fate had a hand in Will Ryan’s art work on view at the Springs Invitational. Curator Teri Kennedy’s admiration for his art was solidified several years ago after seeing a birdhouse he made for a local charity auction raising money to make life easier for East End residents battling cancer.
Will [Ryan]’s birdhouse took the form of an owl—his animal spirit guide. Kennedy expressed admiration for the work and her husband, Kevin, purchased the birdhouse as a gift. Viewed daily from one of her windows, the owl birdhouse has become a welcome addition to Kennedy’s daily routine and routinely attracts wrens for their seasonal home.
Fast forward to 2017. Will [Ryan] has been invited to nearly every Springs Invitational Art Exhibit in the last 25 years, save one or two, he said. After he expressed interest in participating again, Kennedy visited his studio.
Hanging from an enclosed light-filled porch was a suspended kinetic sculpture in the form of an owl on the wing. Immediately, Kennedy said she selected the work for inclusion in the Invitational. The avian connection between her beloved piece and the kinetic sculpture formed an immediate bond, she said. The piece also fit her search for a sculpture that would be a graceful addition to the Invitational when suspended from the ceiling of Ashawagh Hall.
“Will was always in my mind as an Invitational Artist because I admire his work, his spirit and his creative ethic,” said Kennedy. “I chose HOOT because it reminded me so much of his birdhouse.”
While Kennedy connected immediately with HOOT, it wasn’t the only artwork in the artist's studio with the image of an owl woven in as integral to the composition. His deeply spiritual connection with the Snowy Owl is a profound one that began with an unusual encounter, years before his cancer arrived.
The year was 2009 and Will Ryan was hiking on the island of Maui with a friend deep into the crater of the sacred Haleakalā volcano, he recalled. Captivated by the moonlike landscape, he decided to embark on an extended solo mediation.
“As I lay back post-meditation, a bird flew into my peripheral vision,” he recalled. “As it came closer, I saw that it was a big Snowy owl. She proceeded to hover about 30 feet above me and looked me in the eye for what seemed like a very long time. Then, she lofted upward about 10 feet and hovered, looking me again directly in the eye. As I lay there I shouted ‘What do you want? My eyes? My heart? Come and get it!’ After another long eye-to-eye, she flew off.
“I sat up and thought, ‘What just happened here … some kind of interspecies connection?’
“That’s when my experience got even more bizarre. I realized I had been here before. I knew this landscape.
“Eighteen years prior, at Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett, a shaman friend offered to drum for me while I journeyed into the Underworld to find my animal spirit. After entering, I saw many animals running around but none felt like my animal spirit.
“Then, my eyes focused and I realized I’d been looking through the eyes of an owl. I reached my hands to grasp the owl’s white chest as she flew me all over the Underworld. After that, I accepted the owl as my animal spirit but I didn’t know what to do with this knowledge.
“Sitting in the Haleakalā crater, I realized this was the exact spot where the owl had taken me, all those years ago. (How could I remember that when I can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast?)
“I looked around and recognized features of the land and how the light hits them and knew this is where the owl took me. At that moment, I realized time is not linear. All this without any form of hallucinogenic! As I like to say, “on the natch.”
“A few weeks later, I told my story to a Hawaiian elder and described my experience with the owl in the crater. He said, “Will, that’s your aumakua; it came to you.”
“It was then I began my study of the meaning of the owl and began incorporating the owl into my work.” According to the artist, owls can represent wisdom and the communication between the spirit world and the human one.
“I took it as a really positive message,” he said. “For me, it represents a symbol of joy and gratitude. My art is about expressing gratitude; my new CD is titled ‘Gratitude.’ Before, my music was busy and chaotic. Now, it’s very much about clarity and healing. The new CD almost feels like it could be a soundtrack to a movie.”
While the owl doesn’t always make an obvious appearance in his visual art, the sense of flying and floating aloft makes its way into his work in subtle ways, the artist said. “You can feel the owl, rather than see him.”
While Will [Ryan]’s art is abstract or can be figurative, there is a strong narrative sense in his art. When incorporating the owl into his work, it can take on a wispy form or a bolder one … especially when he collaborates with fellow artists.
Will Ryan was born in Jersey City, N.J. and studied painting and photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. As a commercial photographer, he created dozens of book covers and record jackets. His awards include a Clio Award, seven art direction awards and two Kodak Gold Medal Awards. More of his art can be seen by visting www.willryanstudio.com.
The 2017 Springs Invitational Art Exhibition presents art by around 114 artists with work selected by Invitational curator Teri Kennedy. The show will be on view from August 4 to 20, 2017 at Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, N.Y. Presented by the Springs Improvement Society (SIS), the exhibition is a benefit for SIS which maintains and manages Ashawagh Hall.
The “Springs Invitational Art Stories Series” was arranged by Teri Kennedy as a way to reveal the stories behind some of the art on view, presented from the point of view of the exhibiting artist or artists. The next segment reveals an unexpected side to photographer Kat O'Neill. To read the introduction for the Springs Invitational Art Stories Series, click here.
BASIC FACTS: The Springs Invitational will be held August 4 to 20, 2017 at Ashawagh Hall. An Opening Reception will take place Friday, August 4 from 5 to 8 p.m. The Curator’s Tour of the Invitational takes place on Sunday, August 13 from 11 a.m. to noon. Ashawagh Hall is located at 780 Springs Fireplace Rd, East Hampton, NY 11937. www.ashawagh-hall.org.
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