Kinetic Energy, A Ball and An Unlikely Path to Art

An Eagle River man started with a pile of junk, a roll of wire, and an obsession, and ten years later, ended up with art.

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John Will and his sculpture, "One Man's Trash..." Hillman/KSKA
John Will and his sculpture, “One Man’s Trash…” Hillman/KSKA

Encased in Plexiglas and the remains of an old satellite dish, a set of multi-colored snooker balls are running an intricate obstacle course with no finish line.

“We can pick that yellow ball,” John Will says, pointing to one of the seven balls running through the maze. “It’s on it’s way up. I don’t know where it’s gonna go.”

The machines creator watches as the ball goes up the chain lift then drops on the track, triggering a switch. “Of course you see, the second ball that goes through goes on a different route because the switch switched. Oh, we lost the yellow ball.”

It’s easy to lose track as the balls bank the curves, plow through chimes, and spiral down funnels. They trigger flashing toys from the 1980s and jump through loopy-de-loops. Other than the wire tracks, everything is made from junk Will found around the house and garage.

“That’s a trash compactor. That’s a gear out of a rear end of a big truck. That’s an input shaft into an old transmission,” he says, pointing to various parts. He even included parts from an old meat slicer.

Will never foresaw art in his future. He runs a pilot car company and rejuvenates septic systems. But in 2003 he saw an audiokinetic sculpture by George Rhodes – it was a ball maze run with a motor, a chain, and gravity.

“My headed exploded right there. It just popped. I had to do it,” recalls Will.

A close of up John Will's ball sculpture. Hillman/KSKA
A close of up John Will’s ball sculpture. Hillman/KSKA

“You know, I’d sit there and watch TV and my eyes would be looking at it, but my mind wasn’t. So I’d have to get up — I couldn’t sleep, it was freaky! I’d have to draw it on a piece of paper, and then it was out and it was gone and I could go to sleep. And then I wouldn’t lose it, you know?”

For ten years, Will tinkered and tested to see what worked. Dust would get on the tracks and everything would go crazy. The timing would be off.

“The same ball can go down the same track 500 times, and one time it will go flying across the room. What caused that?”

To figure it out, he set up a video camera on the machine to watch for abnormalities, then spent hours, days even, fixing the problems. He says the machine needs to run continuously for two or three weeks to see all of the combinations and possible issues.

But now, his masterwork is finally out of his garage and on display at the Sparc! gallery in downtown Anchorage. Will says he wants it to inspire people.

“The ultimate thing is if you can inspire someone, you know. Just crack the egg somewhere or put a spark in their head. And they can go on from there. God, that’s the biggest gift anybody can give anybody I think.”

It’s the gift artist George Rhodes unknowingly gave John Will, and the gift Will hopes to pass on to other Alaskans.