Will Wheeler ’14. doesn’t just create art. He creates art that interacts with those who view it, prompting them to react to what he has created. His kinetic sculptures include a giant pencil that erases what it has just written and a dog that waves to passers-by in a New York City art gallery. Later this year, Wheeler will take his creative energy to Asia, where he will work with artists and scientists as a Luce Scholar. Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Luce Scholars Program pays all expenses for selected college graduates’ 14-month stay in Asia.
Wheeler originally planned to go to China this spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic has slightly altered his plans. One of his goals is to work with artists and high-tech experts in Shenzhen, a Chinese city that was designed as a tech hub where scientists gather to work on innovative projects. “The community has an open-source philosophy,” he explained, “so people can go there and build drones or cell phones by trading each other’s ideas and modifying them in a way that is not possible in the United States with its patent laws.”
Wheeler, who has worked as an art teacher since he graduated from Vassar, said he may opt instead to work and study with artists in Beijing, China’s cultural hub. And because he has not yet been medically cleared to go to China, Wheeler may spend up to three months in South Korea working with experts in educational technology.
When the pandemic struck last year, he was teaching at an elementary school and at George Mason University, where he worked with coders, teachers, and art therapists to create an app that enables people to create works of art together while they are physically apart. He said he plans to continue this work when he is in Asia. “I love teaching,” he said, “but I’m also curious about expanding my horizons. Making this app made me realize that I may be more interested in making tools for teachers instead of being a teacher myself, and this fellowship is giving me a year to test that out.”
At Vassar, Wheeler majored in philosophy and minored in studio art. He says he thinks that combination of disciplines led him to create his particular brand of sculptures that pose questions to those who view them.
“My Vassar education taught me art is most powerful when it’s a shared experience,” he said. “And being an educator is a way for me to create more artists, including some people who didn’t think they belonged in the club. That’s what makes me keep pushing the boundaries, and I think that’s why the Luce people thought I’d be a good candidate.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to present challenges for him as he finalizes his plans to go to Asia, Wheeler said that in some ways, now is an ideal time for a Black artist to make the trip.
“As a Black person, it’s important for me to be fostering connections and forming relationships with people outside the United States, especially considering the acts of hate against Asians that have been happening recently,” he said. “I want to work toward a future where we can be allies and work together to create a more equitable and inclusive world.”