Person to Watch: William Butler
Bringing art to life
By Heather Morse

Photography by David Michael Howarth

When William Butler takes the stage, his arms quickly begin to bend with swift, expert movements. Within moments, the audience is captivated. However, Butler’s dynamic performance doesn’t revolve around typical instruments like the guitar or piano – because he’s creating live art.

Live painters complete their visual works of art during public events and are often accompanied by live music as crowds watch on. “Live art allows audiences to become a part of and participate in the creative experience,” explains Butler. “It’s a powerful way to bring art to people and reach across the boundaries of color, race and religion in a very non-confrontational, imaginative way.”

Butler was first asked to create a live painting before he had ever heard of the unique process – despite having more than 20 years experience as an artist. “Members of a large church asked me if I would create a painting during one of their sermons,” says Butler. “I was very hesitant – my initial thought was no, because how would I ever complete an entire painting in one hour?”

After some soul searching, Butler decided to accept the challenge. “Five minutes before the service began, they gave me a two-minute breakdown of the sermon. I just let my creativity flow, and at the end of the service I ended up with a beautiful four-foot-by-four-foot canvas. It was a wonderful experience.”


Photo by David Michael Howarth

That event quickly impacted Butler’s career – since then, he’s fielded hundreds of invitations to bring his stunning creative performance to venues all over the country.

“I’ve done live paintings for everything from insurance agencies and Fortune 500 companies to non-profits and churches. I’ve been in front of a few hundred people to crowds of more than 30,000 during a youth conference at the New Orleans Superdome,” says Butler, who tailors each painting to the message and theme of the event.

While the meaning behind each piece changes, Butler uses the same techniques to give his paintings a distinctive style. “I paint layer after layer on the canvas to transform the painting many times before I’m done. It gives the paintings a very textured, 3D feel,” he explains.

The motivation behind Butler’s live artwork also remains the same. “My main goal is to use my artwork as a way of reaching out to restore lives and communities.” To help meet this goal, many of his finished paintings are auctioned off at the end of each event to help raise funds for non-profit organizations, and Butler also donates at least 10 percent of his fees for each appearance.

“Once, I did a painting on live TV that was being broadcast from a studio in Los Angeles to several countries in the Middle East. It was to raise money for an orphanage, and it was just amazing to hear calls coming in from around the world as I was painting,” says Butler.

Another live art painting, this time created at an event in Butler’s home state of Iowa, raised $4,500 for an orphanage in Nigeria. “I’m not able to take out a checkbook and write a check for that amount of money, but having the ability to create artwork for someone who does is a blessing.”

And though Butler’s live paintings have benefitted countless people around the world, his main focus is transforming and restoring hope in Camden through his unique brand of art and design.

“My wife, two sons and I started visiting Camden six years ago while on mission trips,” says Butler, who also produces studio paintings and does work as a graphic designer. “We had gone on mission trips all over the world, but we felt a strong, compelling reason to be here.”

The feeling was so strong that he and his wife, Ronja, sold most of their belongings, packed up a 20-foot trailer and made the 1,000 mile journey from the cornfields of Des Moines to the streets of Camden nearly two years ago. “A lot of people thought we were crazy, but we knew it was the right decision,” says Butler.

Once they arrived in SJ, they first found a home in Camden’s Cooper-Grant neighborhood, located in the shadows of the Ben Franklin Bridge and within walking distance of the Delaware River. There, Ronja home schools their sons and uses their historic neighborhood as a launching pad for their lessons, says Butler.

“There are so many amazing things around us, so we love to explore and walk the neighborhood. We talk about the history here and get the kids involved in local projects like the community garden. Plus, the location of Camden is great – we can jump in the truck and head down to the Shore for a science lesson or take a day trip to Trenton for a history lesson.”

Once their home life in Camden was settled, they found the perfect space for Butler’s studio and gallery, Gallery ElevenOne.

“We stumbled upon this 1906 firehouse just steps from our house, and we knew it was perfect,” says Butler. “We want the gallery to be a family-friendly place where people in the community can connect, share ideas and enjoy art. Our hope is that the space is a creative conduit to help begin the revival of an art community and other businesses in Camden.”

Butler’s artistic outreach in Camden has been furthered by his work with local organizations like UrbanPromise, Hopeworks ’N Camden and the Cooper Cancer Institute. He also created a live painting during Heart of Camden’s gala honoring Jon Bon Jovi and the work of his organization.

The Butler family has taken additional steps to aid the transformation of Camden by founding the 3rd Thursday Art Crawl. As the name suggests, on the third Thursday of each month, Gallery ElevenOne and other Camden businesses and restaurants open their doors for an evening of art, food specials and tours.

The Butlers are also using the gallery space on Camden’s Front Street as headquarters for another venture. Butler explains that the business, ThomasLift, is a “socially conscious company creating inspired art, design – and soon clothing – as a brand of love and justice.

“So much of the clothing produced in the world is made and marketed unethically. ThomasLift will make clothing in a better way – workers will be treated with compassion and empowered.

The fibers to make the clothing would be locally grown, and each stitch would be locally sewn,” says Butler.

The couple has already finished an extensive business plan for the clothing line, which they say would create much-needed jobs in the Camden community. “We would start small – with two to three lines of sewing and finishing – in one facility. Camden is a great staging area for economic growth, but we’re taking a few steps at a time and embracing the opportunities as they come.”

January 2013
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