Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daniel Thompson
Editor 

Painter works to preserve Nebraska's legacy through art

 

Daniel Thompson

Central City painter Todd Williams stands holding his piece "Pawnee Hill & Dexter Barn - Polk County".

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures can bring one back to a single moment in time. Pictures can let people see time periods long passed and loved ones long taken away by the hands of time. They can act as a revolving door to bring us back around to times when smiles crowded our faces and times when the spaces under our eyes were merely occupied by tears, bringing us back to the places that we long and ache to go again.

However, a picture lacks a level of feeling and depth that open one's mind to the beauty of a given area, time period or person. They lack the artistry of having one's emotions surround and encompass the scene, forever affixed and married to that one sublime moment or place in time. It is for this reason that artist Todd Williams has dedicated his time to traveling around the state of Nebraska painting portraits of each county to preserve their beauty and legacy for future generations.

Williams, a Central City native, started the project entitled "Painting The Legacy Of Nebraska", which entails painting depictions of each county in the state, after traveling around Europe on a similar endeavor where he spent time in 2005 and 2007 traveling from Vienna, Austria, Prague, and Italy in order to make 50 paintings depicting the beauty of the different locations to present at his art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"It was just so successful that I kind of used that template. In 2007, I went to Italy and just kind of visited the top spots like Rome, Florence, Venice, Orvieto and the Tuscan region. Again, I did an entire series of 50 paintings. So, again, I had the show at Santa Fe at my gallery there, and it was just wonderful," Williams said.

Due to the success of his work with his travels around Europe, Williams started to play with the idea of painting parts of his home state of Nebraska. The project didn't start off with as wide a scope as it has now, according to Williams. It was only through the support and excitement from those he shared the idea with that led him to decide to take the project a few steps further and really set out to represent the legacy of the state as a whole through his work.

"I actually just started in my own county, Merrick County. I shared the idea with just a few people there. One of them was the Director of the Merrick County Foundation. He just loved it. And everybody has been just so positive about the project. So you know, at first, I didn't really know what to think. But then when I saw this kind of fall into place, I thought this was going to turn out to be something really nice," Williams said.

However, the project didn't truly take off fully until Williams met with Michael Smith, Executive Director of the Nebraska Historical Society.

"I just was kind of meeting with different key people in Nebraska, sharing with them my vision, my passion for this series of paintings. He said, 'When do you hope to have this completed.' And I said 2017. This was about a year and half ago that we sat down together in Lincoln," Williams said.

To Williams' surprise, Smith informed him that his planned date of completion lined up the state's sesquicentennial, 150 year celebration. Due to this chance line up of time frames, Smith put Williams in contact with the Nebraska 150, a committee set up by Governor Dave Heinemann to oversee the 150 year celebrations, which endorsed his project.

The project itself is quite an undertaking for Williams, calling for him to paint at least one depiction of each of the 93 counties in the state by the 150 year celebration.

Each painting is also sponsored by a county, business, institution, foundation or even individuals putting up the money to have each completed.

"Some times there will be multiple paintings or multiple subjects for certain counties. It just kind of depends mostly on sponsorship. Not every county will be able to sponsor a painting, meaning fund it to where they actually own the painting. And that's kind of how I'm handling that. It's not that they're actually sponsoring the project and then they don't get anything returned. They'll actually receive that original painting for that specific county," Williams said.

According to Williams, the sponsorships are not only financially beneficial to the project but the sponsors themselves also help to give Williams guidance as far as what to use to depict the life and the history of the specific locations.

"The sponsorship ones, I kind of look to [the sponsors] since they live there or they have roots there to kind of direct me and since they'll actually own the painting. Some times it can be as simplistic as just aesthetically the beautiful landscape, and that's kind of what they want. Other times it might be a historical landmark. Some times what I'm kind of doing too is that I'm doing some Native American pieces to honor the different tribes that were here in Nebraska," Williams said.

Williams states that he will also be painting some period pieces to focus on the history of Nebraska with such things as the Pony Express, the railroad and various other important moments from the state's nearly 150 years.

"There'll be a really nice variety in the entire show. There will be some that really capture this moment in time and others that really depict the past," Williams said.

However, Williams work will not end after the sesquicentennial. He plans to have a traveling exhibition throughout parts of the state following the 150 year celebration where all of the paintings from the 93 counties will be displayed.

"So in the end, basically, what we're looking at is having a traveling exhibition that will kind of start in Lincoln, Omaha where the entire collection will be viewed. There will probably be close to 100-125 paintings. From there, it will kind of be dispersed by region to some different locations. Kind of in the Panhandle, which is kind of centrally located, we have already secured a location at Alliance to have the Panhandle region be showcased. It's at the Night Museum. They have a really nice display and exhibition space there. And so that's kind of what we have so far. Of course, we'll have the Sand Hills area and the Northeast and obviously some of the major cities along the highway," Williams said.

Thus far, Williams has completed 15 paintings, expecting to get 30 paintings completed by the end of the year.

"It's been really fun. We started here about a week ago in Norfolk, which is just kind of northeast of Merrick County, and then we've just kind of been heading through the Sand Hills kind of zig-zagging back and forth between the counties into the Panhandle and now we're kind of heading back east to end up back in Merrick County.We have about seven left on this particular tour, you might say. And then I'll be back kind of touring again in September. What I'd like to do is kind of capture some of the different seasons too and then visit with people in some of the different counties to help really just educate people, just to see if there might be any interest in the project as far as sponsoring," Williams said.

However, to Williams, the project is not only about depicting the beauty of Nebraska but also serves as a way to bring an emphasis to the visual arts and boost the education of their importance.

"In the Midwest, I think for the majority, it seems like there's been a really nice patronage of the performing arts. You can see some really great performing arts centers and stuff like that, but when it comes to individual arts, it seems to be kind of lacking a little bit. So I want to help revive that a little bit and revive that a little bit and really help educate people in the importance of the visual arts," Williams said.

The project is also a way for Williams to show younger artists that they do not have to travel long distances to the well known picturesque cities of Europe or various other locations around the world in order to paint a beautiful piece of work but that they can find beauty right at home that can inspire those who gaze upon it.

"There is so much beauty in diversity, and I think in Nebraska just so many people are unaware of [it]. I know where I'm at in Merrick County, they never went to Chimney Rock. They've never seen some of these beautiful locations. Just walking out the door here it's just so beautiful. That's part of the thing too. I think it will help the people here in our state, but I think it will also help people that are traveling through Nebraska just to say, 'Wow, I didn't realize that. Man, that's Nebraska?'" Williams said.

The push for education through Williams' work also stems from the inspiration and support that he received from a high school art teacher who pushed him to keep working on his talent and skill, leaving Williams with the desire to do the same for the younger artists still honing their skills today.

"In high school, I had a really great art instructor at the Central City High School, and he really encouraged me. He said, 'Todd, you've got a gift, and you really need to go on and pursue this.' You always need someone to kind of believe in you to really get you pointed in the right direction, because when you're young, you just don't know and you're unsure and you have all this doubt. So he was really an important person in my life, and I still stay in contact with him. It's been really cool," Williams said.

Due to his teacher's support, Williams has enjoyed many years of success from the moment that he graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute after which he worked for Hallmark Cards for 10 years until 2002 when he decided to branch off and start his solo career.

"My dream was always I want to just paint what I want I don't want to paint a little cute bunny or whatever they wanted me to paint. It's like I just want to do what I love to do and be my own boss and that kind of thing. So in 2002, I officially resigned to pursue fine art, and I'd gotten into a gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona and one in Santa Fe. Those were my first two galleries. And I was like, 'Wow, this is great.' So I officially resigned and stepped away and it's been a great journey," Williams said.

Through his experience and at the heart of his current project is the idea of preserving a legacy for future generations through his work and giving them something to inspire them.

"Legacy really means to leave a lasting history for the generations to come. And so when you really look at throughout history one of the greatest gifts in actually doing that is art. So when you go into the museums and you're able to see those paintings, it really depicts that legacy of that people or that community or even really just that time period. And so that's kind of what I see this project doing, not only helping celebrate the 150 year anniversary but helping to show that legacy for centuries to come," Williams said.

Image Courtesy of Todd Williams

"Familiar Scene - Merrick County" by Todd Williams.

That is why Williams continues on in his journey, spends countless hours on the road and puts all of his heart and soul into his work: to give future generations something immortal, something that will stand the test of time long after the places, people and time periods contained within them have long passed.

"The great thing about art is it outlasts us. We'll be long gone, and the next generation will be here. But my hope is that they'll be able to see those and maybe be inspired by those pieces or even just the historical reference too. To get them to say, 'Wow, that's pretty cool. I'd like to look into that.' or 'I'd like to learn more about that location. What was that artist thinking when he did that?'" Williams said.

Anyone interested in learning more about "Painting The Legacy Of Nebraska" or sponsoring a painting can do so by visiting http://www.toddwilliamsfinearts.com or emailing Williams at todd@toddwilliamsfinearts.com.

 

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