Todd A. Williams | Labor of Love

Todd A. Williams celebrates the sesquicentennial of his homeland

By Norman Kolpas

Todd A. Williams, Dust Bowl, 1935, Deuel County, oil, 12 x 24.

Todd A. Williams, Dust Bowl, 1935, Deuel County, oil, 12 x 24.

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

In the course of long and successful careers, many artists will identify individual works, or bodies of work, as “labors of love,” signifying moments in which passion for a particular vision took hold and the artist forsook other opportunities to pursue some lofty goal to completion. By such criteria, Painting the Legacy of Nebraska is a monumental passion project. This collection of 122 paintings by Todd A. Williams is now on view at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln, and then it will make its way to additional venues through the end of this year as part of the state’s 150th anniversary of statehood.

Williams had the inkling of an idea for the project back in 2007 and executed the first oil for it in 2011: THE FARM HOUSE, a small plein-air piece depicting his grandparents’ old, white, two-story home in Hamilton County. But it wasn’t until the following year that he learned of plans to observe the 2017 sesquicentennial and gained the official support of the committee planning the Nebraska 150 Celebration. He then embarked on the large-scale effort in the autumn of 2012; by last October, he had completed at least one painting representing each of the state’s 93 counties, including landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, wildlife, and historical scenes. “What I’m most proud of,” says Williams, “is the variety and diversity of this collection.”

It takes prodigious versatility to pull off an effort of such scope. But Williams’ career, uncannily, makes it seem he was destined to do the job. He was born 50 years ago this month in the town of Central City, about 90 miles west-northwest of Lincoln, and still has a home there. His art talent first emerged when he was 7 years old. “My dad was in the heating and refrigeration business and gave me this big piece of cardboard cut from the box of some sort of appliance he had delivered, and my mom had just purchased me some colored pencils,” he recalls. Stretched out on his bedroom floor, young Todd drew a surprisingly accurate rendering of a tiger poster that hung on his wall. “My mom came in and said, ‘You ought to take this in to show-and-tell.’” He did. “My teacher and my fellow students were amazed,” Williams says. “I remember walking home that day thinking to myself: When I grow up I want to be an artist.”

He continued to draw throughout his school years, progressing from early images of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Conan the Barbarian to, in his senior-year art class, a 30-by-20-inch copy of Salvador Dalí’s CHRIST OF SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS. His teacher, David Jorgensen, was so impressed by the work, done as a Christmas gift for Todd’s mom, that he surprised Williams by building a substantial wooden frame for it. “I was just blown away that someone I truly respected had seen value in my artwork,” he says. “It encouraged me, knowing that what I was doing had value and meaning and could touch people’s lives.”

Williams went on to earn an associate degree in fine art from Central Community College in Columbus, NE, and then a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the respected Kansas City Art Institute. During his senior year at the Institute, he secured an internship with Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. He went to work there as a staff artist/designer straight out of college, eventually transferring to DaySpring, the company’s Christian-card division in Siloam Springs, AR. A decade after graduating from college, having pursued his own painting on weekends and already represented by two respected galleries, Williams was able to resign from his job in 2002 to pursue fine-art painting full time.

The genesis of his Nebraska project came, oddly enough, through his travels in Europe. In 2005, while teaching a workshop in Vienna and Prague, he produced a series of studies that he developed into a solo exhibition of some 50 paintings, more than half of which sold before the show opened in Santa Fe. He did the same thing in 2007 with another series of 50 works based on his journey through Rome, Venice, and Florence and other parts of Tuscany. During that later trip and in the months and years following, he says, “My mind kept going back to my home state of Nebraska and thinking how great it would be to do a series there similar to what I’d done in Europe.”

Eventually, his thoughts evolved to the point of producing that first painting of his grandparents’ place. With a few more completed, and imagining “an exhibition that could travel around the state,” in 2012 he secured what would become a fateful meeting with the executive director of the Nebraska State Historical Society. “He said, ‘When do you hope to have them done?’” Williams recounts. “I said, ‘I’m shooting for 2017.’ His eyes got all big, and he said, ‘Do you know what 2017 is? This could be a perfect project to coincide with the other celebratory events for the sesquicentennial.’ And I said, ‘Sesqui-what?’”

Williams learned that the term referred to a 150th anniversary, and he soon found himself meeting with the board charged with planning the state’s celebration. “They loved my idea,” he says. “I didn’t really plan it this way, but it fell together really nicely.” With Nebraska 150’s encouragement and support, as well as that of several sponsors, he embarked on almost five years of crisscrossing the state by car, making multiple visits to its 93 counties. His wife of more than 25 years, Rebecca, often accompanied him, and his father and mother occasionally joined in, too.

The first stop on many of those journeys was a county’s local historical society. “There are a lot of volunteers with a lot of pride in their communities,” he says of the people he encountered in those organizations. Some offered up digital archives, others albums of old photos, still others simple flip-board displays or framed images mounted on the wall.

The inspirations those resources provided were delightfully varied and unexpected. Take, for example, the serene dual portrait E.B. AND ANNA SMITH, 1929, based on an old black-and-white photo he encountered in Loup County that “reminded me of my grandma and grandpa,” Williams says. “It just captured the essence and spirit of the real people who lived there back then.” Another vintage image, found in Jefferson County, inspired a painting of a far livelier scene: CAMPBELL BROTHERS CIRCUS, 1905. “That was right there in the town square in Fairbury, the county seat, and it’s fairly accurate to the photo I found,” he explains.

Many paintings in the collection arose from direct observation of his home state. SANDHILL CRANES, for example, set at dawn in early spring along the Platte River in Buffalo County, captures the lyrical beauty of the bird migration that is one of the state’s singular attractions. “I just went out to the river and sat there and watched them,” says Williams, who combined numerous photos and plein-air studies for an evocative work that, he adds, was “a smidgen away” from being chosen by the U.S. Postal Service for the stamp commemorating the state’s milestone anniversary.

History, impeccably researched by Williams, emerges in still other works. SIOUX ENCAMPMENT NEAR CHIMNEY ROCK, inspired by a visit he made to a state historical site on the old Oregon Trail, “honors the Native Americans who lived here.” Pioneers who headed west “for a new future” along the picturesque trail find tribute in MITCHELL PASS, OREGON TRAIL. Portraits of famous Nebraskans include baseball great Grover Cleveland Alexander, prominent African-American athlete and physician George Flippin, Buffalo Bill Cody, novelist Mari Sandoz, and Johnny Carson, who is depicted doing one of the card tricks he loved performing as a teenage magician in the town of Norfolk. Says Williams, “I really wanted to recognize and honor some of the great Nebraskans.”

Now that Painting the Legacy of Nebraska is on public display, Williams himself may well be joining the ranks of the state’s most illustrious citizens. He met Governor Pete Ricketts at the show’s opening reception and joked that he may have to run for that office in a few years. “The best parts are the relationships that I’ve built doing this project, learning the history of my state, seeing all the great sights, and meeting the great people and sensing their pride and spirit and love for the state and for their individual communities,” he sums up.

The conclusion of such a rich, all-consuming experience leaves Williams “a little bit at a standstill,” he admits, regarding work that lies ahead. After receptions and presentations tied to the exhibition throughout 2017, he says, “There will definitely be trips abroad in 2018.” But he also admits that future work could “very well be tied to Nebraska history.” After all, he adds, “I have all this research now.”

Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; DeBruyne Fine Art, Naples, FL; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Sherwoods Gallery, Houston, TX;

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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