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Good Willow Hunting: Street Art Brothers Use Symbols From Their Rural Childhood

05/22/2013 10:23 am ET

The sheer array of mediums and techniques used by Street Artists today distinguishes the current scene from the primarily aerosol-based graffiti scene of decades past. In pluralistic New York, a city that appears to reinvent itself almost monthly, we continue to see young artists from out of town who arrive with a penchant for posting their idiosyncratic work on street walls, doorways, and rooftops. We've remarked for a few years about the increase in storytelling that is taking place on the street by a new generation of artists and while there are a number of movements afoot in Street Art right now, this one continues to capture our attention and sometimes, our imagination.

Today we look at New York Street Artist Willow and his brother, who goes by the name Swil, as they build a street mise-en-scène referencing the agrarian life of a huntsman with their highly saturated wheat-pasted images. The two have been putting new work up around Brooklyn for the last couple of years, often working in tandem on handmade pieces, but more often it is Willow's work you may have seen on the heads of birds, bears, reptiles, and the occasional human, each in rich color and great detail.

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Like this new installation on a boarded lot construction site, the images float freely above the street, not exclusively in relation to other elements or in a formal composition, but related by proximity and theme. Speaking with the young artist last week we learned that each element in this new collection adds to a larger storyline that is partially rooted in memories and associations from childhood and their personal history growing up in a hunting culture that exists hours north of New York City.

Of the collaboration, Willow says, "There is not a direct biographical context in this piece and we do not know the man personally, yet we managed to display a dense narrative by playing off one another's intrinsic thoughts. We pulled references from rural upstate New York where we grew up. The hunting community there is vast and I'm sure they would assume this piece is about the sport itself." But he says it's not about hunting specifically nor even about this man, who neither knows but you might think looks like a stand-in for the poet Walt Whitman. "It's more about reflection and consciousness in the natural environment. It is meant to bring a sliver of the lost and forgotten to the city."

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Willow says he's not had a lot of experience with aerosol as a medium and has had issues with control in the past. "I haven't worked with spray paint much, but I've realized it's easier to control when painting large images. So, I decided to paint a blown-up side profile of a wood duck's face," he says of the pivotal avian image to the left. "The iridescence of its plumage is what I wanted to capture. After finishing with the spray, some of the softer lines were enhanced with acrylic paint."

Then came the related elements to its right. "A second piece was needed to reveal the bird's purpose. I wanted to invent an animated sculptural element. I rendered the axe, acorn, and former four-leaf clover in an assemblage that speaks chiefly of our heritage and upbringing. This element later acted as a bridge between the wood duck and the elderly man," he says.

And so who painted the portrait of the bearded huntsman? That's when all the symbols are tied to one another, courtesy of the younger sibling Swil.

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

"I noticed something was missing, that's when I asked my brother if he'd like to add to the image. Through our conversation, he immediately knew what he wanted to do and got to work, paying close attention to the color palette I had used. Swil painted the portrait in acrylic of a seemingly wise old man wearing a massive flowing beard and plaid woodsman's hat to match. The technique he used involved working from dark to light, blending the paint occasionally and using much softer lines than myself. His distant gaze and crossed hands express sincere remorse for the given circumstance and the duck's call is heard."

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

And here we depart from the literal or the linear, as ghosts and poets we can measure and discern intention, emotion, and action, tossing each into the air to float as symbols and atoms, recombining and breaking apart again as in a dream. Willow says of the duck hunter, "Though he is not physically bearing the axe, it has been swung with his awareness. The acorn is split with the hope of a premature germination. This fragile test of luck is something similar to eagerly cracking open a fortune cookie. The man's intentions slide through his idle hands as the fourth leaf drifts away, and the red-eyed waterfowl maintains his blazing glare."

This is perhaps an unusual approach to storytelling on the street, and yet it's indicative of the many new ways the street is talking to us today. Highly laborious and deftly defined, the presentation is at once familiar and odd, making a passerby stop and contemplate it at least for a moment, before continuing on their way to the laundromat or corner deli or opera.

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

After publishing this piece on Brooklyn Street Art, the artist wrote on our Instagram account (@BKstreetart) to recount his experience with someone on the street who also thought the image may have been that of the poet:

"@bkstreetart As I was pasting up this image, a man approached me and was certain that it was Walt Whitman. He was pretty excited about it, then confused when I said it wasn't him, but could very well be him. He then said 'There's really something going on here.'"

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Willow. Swil. Detail (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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This article was also posted on Brooklyn Street Art.

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