Otterbein Alumnus Combines Art and Philosophy in his Endeavors

Posted Feb 19, 2021

By Madelyn Nelson ’23 

Ben Willis ‘14 was awarded the Art Unites CBUS grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council for his photographs of the Black Lives Matter protests in Columbus in 2020. Willis produced hundreds of photos from the protests of people in his community.  

Ben Willis ’14

According to his artist’s page: “From May 28 through June 30, I made hundreds of photographs, all on film covering the uprisings in Columbus. I plan on using the money from this grant to make a photo book in collaboration with local writers, poets and authors who were also on the ground experiencing what we were all thrust into.” 

Behind the lens, Willis is a Columbus native, artist and co-owner of a coffee shop. He has a deep love and appreciation for the city he calls home. The Art Unites Cbus grant will help him continue to educate and inspire those in his community.  

“I had a whole bunch of people send me that specific grant as in, ‘You would be perfect for this grant.’ So, I applied. I do a lot of sociological, anthropological photography. I’m not a journalist. I just take pictures of the things that I believe are important. That’s it. That is what fed into the pictures that got selected for that,” Willis said. 

As a student at Otterbein, Willis studied studio art and philosophy and worked for an Uptown Westerville favorite, Java Central. After graduation, he followed his passion for coffee and later opened Parable, a socially responsible coffee shop in Columbus.  

“I got further into coffee through the aesthetics course with Professor Stephanie Patridge and we went over Of the Standard of Taste by David Hume – and that stuck out to me. I tried to put that into everything I did,” Willis said. 

Patridge, a philosopher of art and ethics, summarized Of the Standard of Taste: “What seems to be a real disagreement about aesthetics might actually be resolvable. It’s not surprising that Ben would find meaning in the lessons from Hume that while there are aesthetics standards, we should be humble in the face of such disagreement.”  

Willis Ben 10

“The name – Parable – is from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. Octavia was a gift from the future that just happened to be in the past. A really incredible afro-futurist, Black-futurist writer. It has a lot of cool lessons that I think if people adopt and entertain, would make the world a much better place as well as the way we interact,” Willis said. 

Before coming to Otterbein, Willis wasn’t planning on pursuing higher education. “It ended up being a really wholistic and transformative process – going to school and being exposed to a bunch of different people. I also got to do a lot of self-work. It’s a hard time being a young person in the world, all the new autonomy,” Willis said of his Otterbein experience. 

Otterbein is proud of the impactful work Willis has done and will continue to do. He lives his life in a way that demonstrates what he stands for.  

Willis Ben 06

“You see the integration of aesthetics, social justice, and ethics coming through in his art. And you see that in his portraiture just as much as you do in his street art photography that we get out of his work on the Black Lives Matter protests,” said Patridge. 

“I’m trying to show the richness and complexity of this place we call Columbus. The place that we call home… I think you can see my affection for this place and the people that make it through the work,” Willis said. 

The #ArtUnitesCbus Exhibition is available now through May 7. Find more information about Willis and the exhibition here