One Man’s Dream: the art of Willie Jordan

Willie Jordan and one of his creations

The Erie home of Willie Jordan doesn’t look like the rest of the houses on West 17th Street. It has nothing to do with the architecture and design of the small, single-family residence. It’s because no other house on the block — or even in the neighborhood for that matter — has a homemade yellow and white trellis that represents a stop on the Underground Railroad. You pass under it to Jordan’s backyard that’s filled with his artwork comprised of what people might label as “junk” — expired license plates, discarded wigs, abandoned tires, a rusty plow, and old pieces of bark.

Inside Jordan’s house, where he has lived for 30 years with his supportive wife Marie, you find more of the same. Every free space is filled with his creations. Jordan isn’t a hoarder or a junk dealer. He’s what is known in the art world as an “installation” artist — someone who takes pieces/parts and reassembles them into something new. But Jordan doesn’t use the term art or artist. He’s too modest for that. He refers to himself as a “tinkerer.”

“I would put old junk pieces together,” Jordan says. “Nothing serious until after the dream, I got real serious. ‘Let me bring this to life. Let me see what this would look like.‘ “

You may wonder what kind of dream could inspire so much creativity. Ten years ago, Jordan had a vivid, realistic dream that became his artistic muse. He experienced “lucid dreaming” where the dreamer isn’t just an observer but an active participant and can exercise some control over the dream. In it, Jordan says he had a big family of about 14, living as slaves on a plantation in pre-Civil War Louisiana. They called him “Willie Boy” and he saw horses, wagons, and white slave owners with whips and nooses.

“I didn’t want to get out of dream. I wanted to see more of what was going on during that time of history. I tried to explain it to people but they said I was crazy. So I put it together as art pieces, “ he says.

Jordan, who only knew about that period from his high school history classes at Tech Memorial, calls that dream “his first life.” He began creating pieces representing that horrible time for blacks, like the old horseless tiller affixed to his garage used by slaves to plow the land.

One of Jordan’s most impressive creations is what he calls his “boneyard” which sits is his backyard. It’s a barrel that contains animal bones unlike what the boneyards in his dream (and in history) had held.

“It was what they did to the colored folks if they didn’t do right. They gut them and burn them. When visitors would come over they would show them the bones like a trophy. The message would be ‘this how we control our Negros,’” Jordan explains.

Jordan creates the art just for himself. He allows people to take what they like from him because he will “make another one that’s even better.” His skill and talent attracted the attention of John Vanco, director of the Erie Art Museum, after he walked past Jordan’s house and did “a double take.” A meeting between Vanco and Jordan lead to Jordan’s only public exhibition in the museum’s McCain Gallery in 2011–2012.

“It was overwhelming,” Jordan says of the show. “I thought I was cutting in line. A lot of folks wanted that gallery but John Vanco just threw me right in front of them. I said ‘they aren’t going to get mad at me are they?’

Vanco praises Jordan’s talent in assembling pieces in such unique and powerful ways that creates stories about the Underground Railroad.

“Willie is a natural artist, someone who is impelled to express himself through visual objects,” Vanco says. “Like many of today’s artists, much of Willie’s work is a form of curating — -selecting and juxtaposing objects in a way that creates meaning, and illusions of meaning. For the installation at the Museum he stepped beyond the implication of story to actually, literally, tell a story.”

Jordan continued visiting the gallery throughout the exhibition’s run, adding pieces and talking with guests who came to see his work. In the end, the artwork returned to Jordan’s home where it fills his garage, backyard, and house.

Currently, his house is the only place one can see Jordan’s work. Vanco says you probably won’t see it for sale in any local galleries.

“The individual elements, while invariably visually interesting — -derive their power from their combination with other elements. They wouldn’t be the same thing if hung on a gallery wall in a typical exhibition, “ Vanco says.

The art does attract the attention of neighbors and passersby. One of his neighbors, however, halfheartedly complained it made Jordan’s place look like a “voodoo house” even though several pieces reflect Jordan’s faith in God. Jordan is happy to talk with anyone who shows an interest in his work.

“I feel blessed because a lot of people don’t have what I have. It keeps me motivated and it keeps me young. I’m 56 years old and I feel like I’m 36,” he says.

Jordan plans on adding more pieces as he looks for material in second hand stores, junkyards, and garage sales. He works second-shift at Accuride, which affords him his mornings to “tinker.”

“I see so much potential in junk. If you bring me a beat-up vehicle, I’d probably make it into a clubhouse,” he says with glee.