Local Sculptor Helps Others Work through Grief
Though few would see similarities between sculpting and the healing of grief, Bob Willis sees them as inseparable.
A bereavement coordinator for Hospice of Oklahoma County since 1995, Bob has led numerous grief counseling sessions in Oklahoma, including several at Edmond Hospital. In past years, he led workshops after the Oklahoma City bombing, at a grief counseling conference in New York after the 9/11 tragedy and in Nairobi, Kenya, after the bombing of the American Embassy.
Bob developed a passion for helping people who are hurting when he was a Baptist pastor in Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Eventually, he focused his ministry on grieving people and joined hospice, which provides physical, spiritual and emotional care to terminally ill patients and their families.
About the same time, Bob was exposed to sculpting. “I spent several Saturdays working with a sculptor friend and I was hooked,” says Bob, who now does his own sculpting and has his own gallery. He especially enjoys sculpting busts of cowboys, Native Americans and Civil War generals and soldiers, and he does portrait sculpture from photos. He also creates a bust of Christ wearing a crown of thorns, called “The Gospel in Clay,” which he presents to groups wanting an inspirational message. His wife, Lynn, provides music and scripture to accompany a half-hour presentation as Bob sculpts the bust, giving a short devotional message at the same time.
Bob is a demonstrating sculptor at festivals throughout the year at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., and in his own gallery during the “First Monday Trade Days” in Canton, Texas. He also teaches classes at The House of Clay in Oklahoma City. Workshops for adults and mature teens are offered on specific days of the month. No previous experience is necessary.
“Everyone will finish a bust during the workshop,” says Bob, who has seen some interesting subjects. Once, a blind woman took the class. She made a bust by feeling her own facial features, then sculpting the clay. It turned out well, he said.
Bob says sculpting relieves tension and feeds his soul. He jokes that he has always enjoyed “playing in the mud.” After firing his pieces, most are finished with a terracotta or black glaze then dusted with a bronze powder. He calls his work “a poor man’s bronze,” because fired clay is not nearly as expensive as bronze. However, people still get a one-of-a-kind piece of art, he said.
A few years ago Bob put his two passions together, working with grieving people and with clay. During a “Mud Therapy” workshop, five to 10 participants sculpt their own “broken hearts.” Bob displays a model of the “healing heart” he sculpted a few years earlier. The heart bears stitches from healing of past losses. A big crack down the middle of the heart-shaped form represents the loss the person is experiencing, along with a bandage that holds the broken heart together.
Bob said God inspired him to sculpt the heart for a couple whose 3-year-old grandson had drowned. They requested that he sculpt a bust of the child, whom Bob had met a month earlier when they visited his gallery. After finishing the bust, Bob sculpted the “healing heart,” then placed a verse of scripture on the base. It reads: He heals the brokenhearted. He binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)
During the four-hour “Mud Therapy” workshop, Bob leads a discussion concerning the painful losses in the participants’ lives and helps them determine what is “holding” them together during their current loss. They discuss how they have recovered from previous losses, often mentioning family, friends and faith. Participants are free to talk while they sculpt, to vent their emotions both in words and in clay. It is a safe place to share their grief with others, to know someone hears their pain and cares about their loss and what they are feeling.
Each person leaves with the sculpted healing heart, along with a seven-day devotional booklet for grieving hearts, written by Bob Willis. They are also invited to attend the free grief counseling sessions provided by Hospice of Oklahoma County.
In November, Bob will cut back on his workload with hospice, going part-time so he can pursue his sculpting career more fully. He hopes to eventually open a gallery in Edmond where he would display and sell not only his own work but that of other artisans as well. He also envisions using the gallery to exhibit the works of Edmond High School art students and offering workshops in a number of mediums by different artists.
Meanwhile, Bob continues to do the work he believes God fashioned especially for him — helping heal broken hearts.
Bob’s work is available for purchase online and at two Edmond locations: Inspirations Tea Room and Gift Shop (North Santa Fe and Edmond Road) and Serendipity Market (33rd and Boulevard).
For more information call (405) 330-4910.