W.C. Wormley's legacy: "He was a classic artist in Northeast before it got where it is now"

W.C. Wormley's legacy: "He was a classic artist in Northeast before it got where it is now"
Sculpture located at Wormley's Art Park, by W.C. Wormley

A melted Barbie Playhouse, multi-colored Bundt cakes, phallic structures made out of silicon caulk, and a sculpture that -- legend has it -- was made out of Elvis's driveway stand as monuments to the late great William Charles Wormley. Known professionally as W.C., or Bill to his friends, Wormley died on June 7 of a heart attack while mowing his lawn. His sculpture-filled yard, hidden behind a fence at his house in northeast Minneapolis, rivals just about any official sculpture garden, and holds within it the legacy of an artist's artist who, according to his friend Dick Brewer, was known for his flamboyant outfits, his great parties, his sense of color and design, and his dedication to an artist's way of life. 

Photo by Sean Smuda 
Photo by Sean Smuda 

Originally from Iowa, Wormley attended MCAD where he graduated in 1972. "He was one of those hippies smoking pot and making art," recalls Aldo Moroni, who was two years behind him at the college. 

In the 1980s, Wormley "was kind of an art star," says Dougie Padilla. He showed his work at the Thomas Barry Gallery, Barry Richards Gallery, and the MAEP Gallery at the MIA, where he was a part of a show there that featured the ArtPolice. However, "he always preferred the alternative scene," says Padilla.

Reviewing a Wormley showing at Thomas Barry Fine Arts in 1991, the Star Tribune's Mary Abbe wrote that "Wormley operates in the gap between European surrealism and American kitsch. It's a gap cluttered with crocheted afghans, suction bath mats, cow horns, plastic fruit, hair curlers, telephone wire, and used baseballs -- all of which Wormley has elevated (levitated is more like it) into art."

Moroni says that Wormley was at the center of the downtown art scene of the 1980s. "They were selling his paintings, he had a child, he was having a real life. He was happy," he says. This was at a time where there were hundreds of artists working in downtown Minneapolis. "We would be making trouble at the New French Café," recalls Brewer. "It was good times for corporate and individual collecting."

W.C. Wormley's legacy: "He was a classic artist in Northeast before it got where it is now"
Photo courtesy Brian Foster

Toward the end of the 1980s, however, the downtown art scene dwindled due to a variety of factors, including gentrification and the economy. Wormley, like many others, could no longer afford his downtown studio and migrated to northeast Minneapolis.

He lived in a variety of places, often camping out in his studio. "He always lived in the rough. If there was a choice between fixing the plumbing and buying art materials, it was always the latter," Brewer says. 

He ended up on 13th Street, eventually opening his own gallery, ACME Visual Arts, in the late 1990s in the space where Anchor Fish and Chips stands now. 

Wormley lived on the main floor at ACME, making the walk-in freezer his bedroom, and had art openings in the basement. Much like Rifle Sport and Speedboat Gallery, ACME also served as a venue for music. "We got busted at every opening," Padilla says. "Back in those days they were trying to get rid of us. They didn't want us in Northeast." 
W.C. Wormley's legacy: "He was a classic artist in Northeast before it got where it is now"
Photo by Sean Smuda

"He was a classic artist in Northeast before it got where it is now," says Paul Dickinson. 

One photo collage made by Sean Smuda in 1998 shows Wormley and Padilla holding a sausage. Titled Northeast Art Giants: Beyond the Sausage Curtain, Padilla says it illustrates the imaginary line between Nye's and Kramarczuk's called "the sausage curtain," as people from downtown were afraid to go that far into Northeast. 

Though Wormley can be credited as one of the forces that led to the transformation of northeast Minneapolis into an area with a vibrant art scene, he never cared much for politicking, and wasn't an Art-a-Whirl fan. He'd often have his own party during Art-a-Whirl weekend, called Worm-a-Whirl. 

"He was from a bygone year," says Dickinson. "From a more Libertarian time where artists did their own thing and let the chips fall where they may." 

Dickinson met Wormley at a Frank Gaard (who was one of Wormley's teachers at MCAD) show at Speedboat."[Wormley said], 'Hey Frank, you got some classy paintings in here,'" Dickinson recalls. "We became friends instantly."

Sculpture by W.C. Wormley made of silicone caulk 
Sculpture by W.C. Wormley made of silicone caulk 

In 2002, John Tribbett of The Pulse described Wormley's work as "Dada and Pollock-fueled abstractions." Viewing a show at Speedboat Gallery, Tribbet wrote: "His artistic momentum coalesces in a colorful series of explosions involving plastic beads, torn plastic, and zigzagging patches of playful hues... His work has the sort of tactile appeal that makes you want to cop a feel when no one is looking." 

Wormley frequented rummage sales and second-hand stores. In the past few years, he bought silicone caulk by the bucketful. He loved fluorescent colors and plastics, and used found materials in much of his work. 

Moroni describes Wormley's art as thick and edible. "There was muscle to them," he says. "They don't have a pictorial sense of any type. There's no narrative or story."  

"I like to call his style pop and op art smashing into abstract expressionism," Padilla says. 

His friends describe Wormley as a cantankerous, ornery,  curmudgeon, but at the same time he was "funnier than crap," says to Padilla. 

"Wormley could be abrasive, but he was kind hearted," Brewer says. He had bouts of depression and sadness, but he was soft hearted underneath his rough exterior. This could be seen in how close he had been do his dog, Ruby, who's now buried in the art park in a heart-shaped shrine. 

"He was a very generous and kind person," says Dickinson. "He was definitely a unique individual who did things the way he wanted to do them. Young artists can learn from the legacy of Bill Wormley. He wasn't afraid of his own shadow. He was a rebel in many ways, a classic non-conformist."

According to Moroni, Wormley's life dealt him different blows, and he struggled with various familial and personal issues. On top of that, Womley always devoted himself to studio life, and that was tough.

Stocking Cap by W.C. Wormley
Stocking Cap by W.C. Wormley

"It's expensive, it burns you up," Moroni says. "It's fun to do it for a year when you're taking a shower in the sink. After that, not so much." 

"He made life choices that he made and paid the price for," he continues. "That's an honorable existence. If you want to sit in a suburban yard and sip your cocktails, that's fine. His choice was to be an artist." 

"His practice was part of his aesthetic," says Dickinson. "He made stuff every day. And he always had plans to make more. He believed in art. Art was his religion, really." 

In addition to artmaking, Wormley was a contractor and carpenter. "He was very skilled and would do that to make money from time to time," Dickinson says. "He could do the work of five guys. He had some health issues, but that never stopped him or slowed him down." 

"He lived his bliss. He lived his life in a way that was true to himself to the end," says Brewer. "He wasn't trying to be a scene maker. He was the scene. He was the real deal." 

Seraphene Abrahms, another friend, wrote her thoughts about Wormley into a poem: 
Elvis's Driveway, by W.C. Wormley
Elvis's Driveway, by W.C. Wormley

I Remember Bill...
While tending radishes in my garden.
ACME Visual Arts - A real rock and roll art show.
Letting artists be themselves,
Painters, poets, musicians...
No need for explaining,
The art always spoke for itself.
One who never pushed his own but let others voice theirs.
Letting the young know it is okay to be who they are.
Giving artists of all ages and ability the chance to express themselves,
Together, without judgements.
The way expressions should be,
Remembering my first Thanksgiving discharged from the NAVY.
With Bill and my Mother by candlelight.
And Love, 
Love always for Camille,
And Ruby.
The Bill Art Park - A place that should stick around.
Remembering Bill,
Most of all...
As a human being.

- Seraphene 

A memorial potluck for Bill Wormley will be held from 3-8 p.m. Saturday, July 13. Brass Messengers, Jazz Dadz (The Trail of Tears), Gabe Barnett and the Big House Rounders, and Areola 51 will perform.

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