It took a few decades, but Boulder-based painter Will Day finally found his artistic spirit—and his work proves that it was well worth the wait
A bright, tall-ceilinged studio in Boulder feels like part work space, part gallery—and that’s just how artist Will Day likes it. In this hard-won second act of his life, Day paints his large-scale abstracts—vivid expressions of emotion and energy—and welcomes clients to observe him as he works. Day shares how he arrived at this creative place.
The Fountains, 60 x 84 inches, oil on canvas
CH&L: How did your artistic life begin?
Will Day: In seventh grade, in Miss Kay’s art class, I created this watercolor landscape, and something clicked in me. I remember this feeling of freedom and joy like I hadn’t experienced before. But I grew up in Darien, Connecticut. You didn’t say you wanted to be an artist in Darien. You said you wanted to work on Wall Street.
Then I went to boarding school—to Cushing Academy in Massachusetts—and I had a couple of art teachers there who said to me, ‘What is it that your heart talks about?’ I loved exploring that question, but a part of me—a big part of me—thought that responsible people didn’t decide to become artists. How would I support a family? Around that time, I read a few works by [renowned mythology scholar] Joseph Campbell, and I loved this quote of his: “The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are.” I believe in God who created all of us and created us with gifts. Figuring out what those are is essential to discovering who you are.
It took a couple of decades before you self-identified as an artist, and that time included a stint in North Africa working for the Peace Corps. As you grew into an adult, did that desire to create ever re-emerge?
Definitely. In Tunisia, I came back to my creative spirit. I could not stop painting, drawing, writing, photographing. I felt like I was reborn. Something was really knocking on my head. God was saying, ‘You have this talent; what are you going to do with it?’ My mind was exploding with curiosity, and my art was the purest expression of that curiosity.
Remembering Summer, 36 x 36 inches, acrylic on panel
You ended up taking a few detours after you returned to the States—into a job in finance, and then becoming an architect at a big firm in Los Angeles. Did architecture satisfy your creative impulses?
Sometimes, but architecture can also be very structured in a way that was tough for me. I remember being on the jobsite in downtown LA one afternoon, and suddenly I had this craving to paint. So I left work early and bought this huge role of canvas—raw and unstretched—and just pinned it up in the back of my garage. My wife said, ‘What are you doing?’ I told her I was just being a regular guy. She laughed and said, ‘That’s not what regular guys do, Will.’
You eventually moved to Boulder to start fresh, but when the economy crashed in 2008 and you were at a crossroads without steady work, you gave yourself two years to paint. So once you decided to be an artist, was the path straight?
Straighter. [Laughs.] I figured I could only go up, so I just kept working at it. I began by leasing artwork to companies in Boulder and Denver. I trusted my business acumen; I listened to people; I like to think I brought joy and beauty and energy to plenty of big, beige walls. Then my big break came in 2009 when I won a blue ribbon in the Downtown Boulder Arts Festival. I started getting large commissions, and my work is still 90 percent commissioned work.
Why is that?
I think it’s because my work tells a story. There’s an incredible energy at work when I communicate something through paintings. I absorb the stories people tell me about their lives; there’s a dynamic relationship between the artist and the viewer. It’s also scary. Each client is paying me to create something one-of-a-kind that’s going to inspire them and share a story at that moment that they’ll connect to all their lives.
Restful, 36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas
Tell us about your process.
It’s pretty simple; it’s learning to let go, get out of my head, get into my art. I think of it as allowing colors and compositions to work through me. I throw paint right onto the canvas; I start reacting—my heart and soul starts reacting to these colors and textures. I paint on the floor because it allows me that architect’s view, and then I hang the canvas on the wall and keep working the colors and textures and movement.
And what does Colorado mean to your art?
I felt suffocated in my life in New York, so Colorado means being open, fresh, new, reflective. I come [to my studio], and every day is a new day. It enables me to continue to think clearly because of the sun, the natural landscape, the colors. That’s what’s influencing my art. I don’t have to succumb to the politics of New York and LA. I’m so happy right now. I want to be sure I carry the spirit of joy the rest of my life.
See all Will Day’s work and find more information at willdayart.com