The following is paraphrasing Diz's own résumé:
Diz (Graham) Willis was born 1938, he lived in north London and left school at sixteen after a year of Saturday morning classes at Hornsea School of Art. He was accepted for entry at St. Martin's Art School but he failed to get parental permission to take up the place. Diz avoided National Service as a conscientious objector and went on workcamps in Europe. On return he passed the time laying about in Soho and St. Ives, washing up, building and decorating and for some time had a regular pitch drawing on the pavement outside the National Gallery.
He married Mog, an artists' model in 1961 and they had two children, Rebecca and Simon. Still in London, he worked as dustman, ratcatcher, booking office clerk and continental telephone operator. Moved to Norfolk, where after spells as a steelfixer, telegraph clerk and carrothunter became Regional Co-ordinator for Arts Council New Activities committee and set up Anglian Arts Co-op in a disused chapel in Norwich. This was a result of being a founder member of the Australian Dancers.
Who were the Australian Dancers - Alex Hamilton surmised that "they are not dancers and they are not Australians, but it seemed the right name for people who slept with bread pudding under the pillow and had stopped watches in their pockets." They were actually a poetry / performance group.
After an amicable divorce, Diz stayed for a while on an arty commune in the country and then moved North to work with theatre and performance groups, Welfare State, Matchbox Purveyors, Portable Theatre but principally as full time member of the John Bull Puncture Repair Kit, for several years receiving an Arts Council Bursary. In 1978 he packed in performing to devote his time to painting. He did a B.A. Course at Leeds Poly and painted solidly and progressively ever since. Diz occaisionally appeared in public as The Colonel, owner of the last two genuine Elvises in captivity with Smell & Quim. I regret to say that Diz died on 20th. June 1999. He died in his sleep while visiting Becky in Norwich.
Norwich arts Lab from the International Times, March 1970 (check out Beckenham arts lab).
Diz Willis: An Appreciation by Snoo Wilson.
I am so glad I bought a Diz Willis. In fact I bought two canvases off him during a short but heady period of affluence twenty years ago. I was rather keener to thrust the cheque onto Diz than he was initially to receive it, but he finally overcame his modest diffidence. There is a bathroom still life and a larger and more ambitious one of a cricketer refracted into one of Diz's lifelong fascinations, the anarchist Peter the Painter as crooked bat in hand, he faces the ball.
Peter the Painter is dressed in cricketing cap and white flannels with bluish shadows on them. His innocent round face is looking worried, as well it might: there is no umpire in the picture and the artist's brush has mutated the ball into that essential for every cartoon anarchist, a round bomb with a smoking fuse. The background with its disintegrating red cricket stumps is in Diz's byzantine neo-fractal style. As I remember, the smoking fuse does not mark the trajectory of the missile because the painter is more concerned with assembly of imagery on a different path of time than the tick of the inexorable Newtonian moment.
Diz's bathroom painting has no Mrs Willis of first or second vintage addressing her toilette, and may even predate them. It is a formal exploration of the different planes of the empty room using the geometry of black and white tiles and mirrors. Less anxious, less exuberant than Peter the Anarchist, but still provoking thought about the act of observation, perspective, and reflections in general.
Years ago, when the world was young Diz came to stay in London. "The Great City of Lun Un", as he called it in one poem, was always slightly suspect in his mythology, although the pearl in the oyster was Ronnie Scott's. Diz must have come in late and bedded down on something I had constructed from wood rescued from skips, held together with ropes lashed in nautical fashion round a large baulk of timber. The Seagoing Bed, as we called it, boasted an old-fashioned feather mattress, the feathers of which swelled in hot weather. The next morning I came in and discovered Diz who had not bothered himself with bedclothes, lying apparently trapped underneath a vast round object. Diz's ginger beard was visible one end, and out the other end stuck two bluish feet, which Diz appeared to have forgotten his connection with. His body heat had swollen the feather mattress as he lay beneath it and it had become a mighty sausage. I apologised for the lack of bedclothes and asked him how his night had been in general. "Very nice," replied Diz politely, from beneath a hundredweight of inflated swansdown. "It was a bit like being dead."
I discover now that he may have been born as well as dying with the sun in a busy twelfth house, the house of The Beyond. (I first became drawn to astrology when Mogg, then his wife did my chart for me.) No one knows his time of birth for sure; Diz was adopted, something which must have fostered his particular independent vision, as well as fettering it. When I read that he didn't take up the place he had been offered in St Martins' because of parental opposition, I wept. Not least because the folk who raised him probably thought they were doing the right thing by trying to make sure he did something 'sensible'.
Diz was certainly no Organisation man: after dealing with the Arts Council when he was East Anglia's Regional Co-ordinator he told me he used to have to go out and jump on a bus and then another bus and just ride blindly, not caring or knowing where he was going, escaping from the hated job of administrational presentations and manoeuvres.
I first met Diz when I replaced Jeff Nuttall in a performing poet's group called The Australian Dancers, when I was a student at East Anglia University. Three decades later, on a weekly basis I still remember a wonderful phrase from one of our collective babels, which was by Diz- "Weeping in the hollow pillared sky". Diz was also publishing his own poetry at the time in booklets tied with ribbons which were hawked round the pub- I particularly liked 'The Terrible Funeral' . He had a rail pass at the time and insisted on subsidising me going to a gig in Newcastle because he said, he was travelling for free. It wasn't true he travelled free, but it was true I was skint.
He was an unforgettable performance artist, and a very good straight actor, too on stage and screen. His part in Tony Bicat's film Dinosaur was initially small but on the screen Diz's performance takes over the main story. I had earlier cast him as a replacement for one of the hideous assistants who get rid of the bloodied cast at the end of Layby, when it was running in all its smutty glory at Charles' Marowitz' Open Space theatre. Diz was terribly good, again. I was looking forward to getting him to play one of Jung's raving loonies for my film Sabina, but that rotter Death has swung his scythe into the spokes of that particular scheme. I aspire to play the loon myself in tribute, as Mr Willis might have. What is death, after all? A wretched bumbling creature, hardly worth acknowledging, that Walter Raleigh dismissively described to his wife as'...An Ugglie Fiende, that I despise'.
The dead are us, asserted George Sand. Well, maybe, or maybe there was a nuance, a twist, lost in translation. Do bits of us get lost, in our translation to the Beyond? Is irony purged from our souls in Other Realms? Is there a Little Book of Death on sale somewhere I can usefully consult?
I did dream, once, of being there as Diz died. It was fifteen years ago and so hardly in the 'prophetic' league of foresight. He was lying flat on his back, as if still under the feather bed which must have inspired the dream. I remonstrated with him for so carelessly leaving. Presumably in my dream, you were able to choose whether to go or not: A foolish and unworldly dream! Diz replied resignedly, from the bed to the effect that staying was not an option. In dark tones suggesting it was self-apparent, he then added "I have lived Too Much". I remember nothing more. It was one of the few dreams I have dreamed which actually had a punch line. And now the dream has come 'true', and Diz is translated, but hopefully with his sense of humour intact: if so, he's probably alarming angels by reciting highlights of Songs for Bum Lovers in his 'Terrible' voice, all the while rolling a cigarette with one hand and pissing in the sink.
Diz's painting, viewed together, are a full affirmation of the apprehension of a hilarious and scary world, by an active, provocative and involved imagination. From what I have been sent as programme material there are two new landscapes I had not seen, which are ravishing . Diz's own commentaries on his paintings also show a lucid and self aware talent rich with irony, full of charm and not averse, any more than Dali or Picasso, to improvisation. Diz has laid down his brush after his unique life. This is a part of his legacy. He lives on, partly, in our delight.
Diz's comic novel which was published by Bristow's Wild Pigeon Press.
If you want to see some of his paintings check out the gallery link button at the top.
Meantime let us travel to that smoky mutton-chop-shaped continent with the recently discovered diaries of Sir Burton Richards:
Jeff Nuttall wrote the following about Diz and his flight from Norwich:
Willis crawled out of his father's bank account at an early age and sussed the scene. One-time occupant of a bomb-site behind the Partisan, he drifted in and out of dream-gypsyhood, painting his totter's patterns on coster barrows, writing his rambling stanzas, feeding his festering body, working himself to a mild madness and savage leg-boils for his beautiful round witch wife and her seraphim.
Diz Willis landed in performance art like a discarded military greatcoat. I am in my damp Bradford flat burning copies of Bomb Culture when the phone goes. Willis.
"Rescue me, for fuck's sake."
"What from? Norwich?" Norwich was where I'd last seen Diz. He and I and Tim Sillence ran a poetry performance group called the Australian Dancers.
"No. From this fucking pub."
"I think its called the Carlton."
The Carlton was all soft-leather elbow rests, bobbled lampshades and flock wallpaper. It was across the road from my flat.
I put Diz up in the guest room. The guest room was unfurnished but for three camp-beds and the phone. One wall was porous. As it faced the bleak Pennine gales it was perpetually streaming. Occasional guests were Dick Ward the painter, Diz Willis, Roland Miller and Snoo Wilson. If the phone went in the middle of the night I had to penetrate an atmosphere like that of a nineteenth century steam laundry. What happened was that the expectoration of excess air precipitated by massive intakes of Newcastle Brown and Guinness on the part of my guests, mingled nightly with the steam which the heat of their sleeping bodies drew from the damp wall. Diz seemed a rightful denizen of this swampland - ever something of the Caliban, even of the banished Nebuchadnezzar in Diz.
A Viking god, Mogs Willis called him - tall anyway, lanky, his loose-knotted limbs jangling merry bells at the fork of many a gratful lady. Spectacles of Mr Chips (Dr Crippen?). Hair as ginger as a fagstained finger. Breathless cockney confidences.
Diz's range comes out of poetry and finishes up poetic. His costumes, images, sculptures are those of the demolition site meths drinker (Diz in a Bradford pub after talking to a man selling clean trousers in the Gents - "Imagine anyone being so kind - so considerate -"). He is the master of the barely audible aside built into which will be the exactly accurate historic reference or topical jab.
Diz is a gadfly never settled. Left Mogs, settled with the Welfare State. Left the Welfare State, settled with John Bull. Odd gigs with Jack, with Miller / Cameron, Hinchliffe. Quietly making himself a legend for his somnambulant humour, his wide reliable talent. "Performance art? theatre? 'Oo gives a shit as long as it works?
Diz in the Edinburgh grocer's: "Could I have a mince round?"
"Aye, indeed ye can."
Diz minces round the shop like Larry Grayson.
Diz outside the Savoy. Smouldering capitalist awaits taxi. Diz: "ere, 'ere's a couple of bob for yer, guv. You look as though you need it."
A man waiting for his late Arts Council grant sits outside the Jacob's Well Inn, Bradford, a tiny totter's pub with the finest Tetley's mild in Yorkshire. Sitting on a wall watching his smoke-puffing smouldering engine-on-painted-wheels. Slides the tin drawers in and out by their lionshead handles: "Very cheap. Wiv a nob er butter. 'Ot pertaters!"