The Art of Fun

Rankin Willard’s bold and playful signature

By Ashley Wahl     Photograph by John Gessner

High Point artist Rankin Willard can throw a knockout punch. Consider Hotdog + Avocado = Sushi. Or Pineapple = Egg – Chocolate. He aims for the playful space between realism and minimalism — a place marked by exaggerated light and shadow — and then wham. The delivery is so quick, so precise that it hits you before you ever see it coming.

That’s Rankin for you. And his signature style paired with his vibrant colors and a bold sense of immediacy smacks you with an instant dose of joy.

Take Beagle, for example. Just look at that huge adorable snout, those wide unblinking nostrils, those dewy puppy eyes. It is, perhaps, the only thing cuter than an actual beagle. Like, seriously. 

“When it comes to visual art,” says Willard, who speaks thoughtfully with gentle inflections, “you really only have one moment.”

He then begins to describe a parlor game from his college years, Celebrity. The first round is similar to Taboo in that you can say anything but the celebrity’s name to get your teammates to guess who you’ve drawn from the hat. The subsequent rounds require more precision, more brevity. And by the fourth and final round, Willard explains, you draw a name, close your eyes and strike one pose.

“That’s what you have with art. You don’t have a novel or a film’s worth of information. You only have one image to get across to people.”

A thick slice of bacon, for instance. A paper plane. A red, white and blue Rocket Pop.

Willard’s bright and poppy images, many of which he created as paper collages, have landed in private and corporate collections around the globe, including New York, San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas, London and Australia. 

In 2016, a friend told him to check out a house tour featured on ELLE DÉCOR’s website, where a sunny chartreuse room inside fashion designer Christian Siriano’s swanky Connecticut home featured not one but two Rankin Willard dog prints. 

For someone who had watched Project Runway in its entirety, “that felt pretty good.” 

Willard, now 32, grew up in nearby Thomasville with close ties to the High Point Market.

“My mother is an interior designer,” he explains. And yet, “I wouldn’t say that I was a happy artist as a child.”

In grade school Rankin argued with his art teachers.

“‘Just fill up the white space,’ they would say, and I did not want to. I felt like that was ridiculous.”   

After graduating from High Point University with an individualized major — part theater, part writing, part visual art — Willard landed an internship with gallerist Sandra Gering in New York, where he discovered the Alex Katz painting that awakened the artist as we know him.

“That was the impetus for most of what I’ve done since then.” 

No, his art didn’t take off overnight. But after New York’s One Kings Lane plugged Willard’s work in an online flash sale, things shifted.

Willard’s paper collages, prints and paintings have since been featured in national publications like Home Accents Today, Good Housekeeping, Parents and Real Simple, plus a Turkish lifestyle magazine and an online magazine in Spain.

His art gained regional traction thanks to High Point’s Mill Collective, a talent platform for modern design that connects artists and makers with designers, architects and retailers.

But Willard’s favorite arrival story doesn’t involve a celebrity, a collector or a glossy magazine. It starts with a phone call from an old friend who’d just gone on a first date.

“When he opened his door,” the friend said to Rankin, “I looked down the hallway and saw one of your pieces on the back wall.”

Rankin still laughs in sheer wonderment.

“Just marry them already,” he told his friend. “I mean, what else do you need to know?”  h

Learn more about Rankin Willard and his artwork at

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