Posted on by ZooKeeper

james willis

On June 16th, 2012, The Music Zoo in cooperation with Gibson Custom Shop put on an unprecedented event that combined fine art with the best Gibson guitars in the world.  The Gibson Art & Guitars Festival was a celebration of Gibson’s first Artist In Residence James A. Willis, who was displaying his paintings, customized guitars, and a host of other inspired artwork he has done in the last year.  The festival also was the country’s biggest display of Gibson Custom Shop guitars, which was quite a sight to behold on its own.  For those of you who couldn’t make it to The Music Zoo for the event, check out the photos below and see what it was all about.

james willis

We first met James A. Willis at the 2012 NAMM Show in Anaheim, CA, where he was displaying the first of the artwork that he has created in conjunction with Gibson Custom Shop.  We saw gorgeously painted Les Pauls, hand carved pickguards, even tooled leather.  James A. Willis is Gibson’s first Artist In Residence, a program that seeks to advance the arts around the world by supporting exceptionally talented artists.

Born and raised in South Georgia, James A. Willis moved to New York City to study traditional painting techniques under renowned realist painters David Leffel and Greg Kruetz at the Art Students League of New York.  Most famous for his impressionistic oil paintings of Manhattan, he’s been successful in many mediums, including leather, metal, and sculpture.  All of these talents come together in his partnership with Gibson guitars.

The main focus of the event was to introduce James and his artwork to the public.  What Gibson is doing with the Artist In Residence program is very special and worthy of the attention of everyone who loves guitars and the creative process in general.  Gibson Custom’s AIR program is unique to the guitar industry and seeks to inspire and support fine art on a global basis.  The AIR program is dedicated to  advancing the arts through support of exceptionally talented artists from around the World regardless of their mediums while furthering the reach of the Gibson brand and its legacy.  The program’s first and current Artist in Residence is James A. Willis of New York.  After months of work in the Gibson Custom Shop and at a dedicated studio in Nashville, Gibson Custom and James have created the first exhibit of fine art works inspired and supported by “AIR”.  This event at The Music Zoo was the first public exhibit of the the complete collection: works on canvas, sculpture and leatherwork.  More information and examples of art are available at:

music zoo

The Music Zoo proud to display over $1 Million in Gibson Custom Shop guitars for the event.  Gibson brought their trailer from Nashville that was packed to the gills with guitars, and The Zoo provided the rest.


willis les paul

Above, the “New York City Special”   Original hand painted Les Paul with hand carved pick guard and truss rod cover by James A. Willis.   Features a carved pickguard and truss rod cover,  painted one of a kind case, and a custom leather strap.


willis angel

Part of a series of Edgar Allen Poe inspired art guitars, this Flying V has become “The Raven”.  Features Willis’ original hand carved body and finishing, and was displayed with design sketches.


Willis SG

Another Edgar Allen Poe guitar was this incredibly cool SG that Willis carved into the “Mask Of The Red Death”.



James A. Willis showed up riding this bad ass Triumph bike that he had completely hand customized.


bike seats

Some sweet tooled and painted leather works that will make some killer bike seats someday.  Somehow, bikes and guitars just go together.



A nice selection of semi-hollowbody Gibsons were hiding out in this corner.  Everything was available to play, and everything was for sale.


Rusty Paul

We were honored to have Rusty Paul, Les Paul’s son, arrive to the store to share his knowledge of Gibson guitars with the people.  Pictured here with The Music Zoo’s owner, Tommy Colletti.


store Music Zoo

Many guitars had corresponding oil paintings, which were displayed alongside.  Willis is a master of impressionistic cityscapes, yet somehow manages to integrate touches from Civil War-era handicraft and old west leather work into his repertoire.  It works.  The show felt cohesive and demonstrated the surprising similarities between the art itself and the tools used to make it.


Jimmy Vivino

Conan’s Jimmy Vivino came out to hang.  Always a fountain of knowledge on guitars, and a cool guy to talk to as well, Jimmy was kind enough to give some interviews.




The other thing that Jimmy helped us with was help us to do the big giveaway of the day;  The Music Zoo provided  a brand new Gibson Custom Shop Limited Firebird in Silver Mist that was given away to lucky young Alex Michalopoulos.  He was psyched.  We were too!


Tommy winner

A huge thanks to James A. Willis for bringing out all his artwork and giving his time to us that weekend, as well as to Gibson Custom Shop and the Artist In Residence program.  Special thanks to Guitar Shop TV for covering the event, and to Tito’s Handmade Vodka for sponsoring the bar.