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Washburn's Zach Willis an artist on and off the football field




Zach Willis will go down in history as one of Washburn University's all-time best running backs, currently ranking 11th all-time in career rushing yards.

It turns out that the 5-foot-8, 210-pound senior is just as talented in an art studio.

And although football-toting art majors may be a rarity, the Belton, Mo. native has an equal appreciation and love for both.

"When I was in elementary school I was already thinking critically about art and what people might like,'' Willis said. "Throughout the years I kind of got away from it and then when I got into college I started thinking, 'Get back to your roots and what really made you who you are,' and here I am today.''

FDNpxitXIAMp8a5WU standout running back Zach Willis stands in front of one of his favorite art prints, which are currently on display in Washburn's art building. [Photo by Rick Peterson/TSN]

A lot of Willis' Ichabod teammates may not understand his attraction to art, but Willis, the second-leading rusher for the 7-2 Ichabods, feels like his two passions are a perfect complement for each other.

"It's really cool how they both relate because I'm always thinking critcally on, 'What could I have done better with this or that?' '' said Willis, who will graduate in December. "They go hand in hand for me, just making sure I'm always creating my best work. I'm always trying to be creative on the football field and in the classroom.''

Willis' art is currently on display on campus in his "Layout to Super Structure'' exhibition and Willis said it's been a thrill for him to see how his teammates and coaches have reacted to seeing his art -- both prints and sculptures -- for the first time. 

"No one really understood why I was in art, so when they came in here and got to see things that I created and seeing what kind of career paths you can get into with art, they were like, 'Oh wow! You can do a lot with that,' '' said Willis, who wants to be an architectural illustrator and drafter. "It's funny to see how people don't really think that much of art until they're actually in here.

"Just seeing how big their eyes got and how they gained a whole new appreciation for art was really cool to me.''

Willis was particularly pleased with how his football coach, Craig Schurig, reacted to seeing Willis' work off the gridiron.

"When he walked in it kind of looked like Christmas morning to him,'' Willis said with a big smile. "He was not expecting there to be that many pieces and he was really supportive. When he saw it he was just telling everybody about it afterwards.''

FDNqqQPWYAA13mvWashburn running back Zach Willis currently has his art projects on display in the Washburn art building. [Photo by Rick Peterson/TSN]

Willis' exhibit contains a wide variety of works, but he said they all also have a common theme. 

"I try to look at how things work in relationship to each other and how they can build on each other,'' Willis said. "I got to the sculptures and wanted to show how those kind of relate to some of my posters and the designs of the super structure.

"I really try to push trying new things so a lot of these take about two or three weeks, just practicing new techniques and then applying them. A lot of them took me about a month. I never had like a set idea of what I wanted to do, but I when I start getting into my habits a little bit on wanting to create things I go vertically up.''

A lot of his work is done on a computer but Willis had to take a hands-on approach with his sculptures that are a part of his exhibition.

"I look at other people's work and kind of get an inspiration from them,'' he said. "Before I started really gluing them together I kind of experimented on a table and laid it all out and saw how I wanted to put it together. It was just like Legos, just seeing how it looked and then piece by piece if I liked it I would glue it together and then just keep working like that.''

Obviously both football and art can be frustrating at times, but Willis said his dual pursuits can also be therapeutic for him.

 "Any time I'm just not doing well in one I can always count on the other one to help give me hindsight and be able to appreciate one thing or the other,'' Willis said.

"Both of them have always been a safe haven for me.''