Amidst the flurry of dynamic activities at the Contemporary Art Center, William Butler holds it all together.
Artists are often known for very specific phases in their careers. Picasso’s infamous Blue Period, for example, is markedly different from his Cubism and Surrealism periods, informed by changing circumstances, new influences and evolving philosophies. Looking back, each is a microcosm that tells a story not only of the individual, but of the world around them.
William Butler, artist and executive director of the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria (CAC), is no exception. His creative journey has been anything but straightforward—a story expressed in his own artwork, as well as the ever-evolving organization he has led for more than 15 years.
The Road to Artistry
“I want to be an artist.” This was six-year-old William Butler’s response to his father when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Those who know him will not be surprised at the decisive answer. Even as a child, he possessed the same focus and business savvy that has defined his tenure at the CAC.
Some parents might balk at such a response, but Butler’s father took him seriously. “What you want to be is a commercial artist,” he replied. “Of course, I had no idea what that was,” Butler laughs. “I was six years old!” Butler’s father was no stranger to that world, having worked in the photography lab at Caterpillar alongside several commercial artists. On occasion, he would even take his son into work with him, letting him watch and help develop film. Encouraged by his father, Butler sought opportunities to monetize his burgeoning talent, even selling paintings to grade-school friends in his hometown of Bartonville. “I would say, ‘Do you want a picture of a race car?’… and sell it for a dime,” he recalls.
After earning his degree in graphic design, Butler worked as a graphic designer and illustrator—first for a company focused on instrumentation for racing vehicles, and then for a toy company outside of Chicago, designing graphics for product packaging and creating illustrations for ads and assembly instructions.
“They were low-end, classic toys—basically, let’s try to rip off Fisher-Price as close as we can,” he says with a laugh. During his eight years at the toy company, Butler worked with a variety of departments, including engineering, marketing and design, and even had a chance to design toys himself.
William Butler at work in his studio at the Contemporary Art Center. In addition to leading the CAC as executive director, Butler has kept a studio there for more than two decades.
With his career entrenched in commercial art, he also spent these years developing his skills in fine art—both vying heavily for his attention. He displayed his work at a pair of galleries in northern Illinois, but sales were slow and he eventually decided to pack up his bags and leave. When he returned to Peoria, he tried unsuccessfully to find a job as a graphic artist. “No one would hire me! I had all this experience, but everyone said, ‘You don’t have the right experience,’ or… ‘You’re too experienced!’” That was the final push Butler needed to continue his path in fine art, attempting to sell his paintings.
He decided to try his luck at fine art fairs, winning a string of awards, but not enough to pay the bills. He started a lawn business to supplement his income—the flexibility allowed him to travel to art fairs on weekends, but it was exhausting. “I never got a day off,” he admits. He managed to keep up this dizzying schedule for eight years.
While Butler was producing nostalgic, melancholy watercolors inspired by his early admiration of Andrew Wyeth, he began to wonder if he could turn a larger profit by creating artwork that was more relatable. “I sat down one day and wrote down all the things I thought people would like. What is the average subject matter that will be universal…? I wrote down ‘coffee.’ I didn’t even drink coffee!” he says with a chuckle. “But I thought, well, everybody likes coffee.”
Energizing the Riverfront
Butler’s coffee-inspired series of paintings was a hit—and he soon realized his need for a dedicated studio. In early 1996, he found an answer when a fellow artist told him about a building that was open to the public, where he could create art and sell his work. It proved to be a perfect match.
At the time, the Contemporary Art Center did not exist in its current form. Its forerunner, located in the same building, was known as the Checkered Raven. Co-owned by artists Preston Jackson and Bob Emser, its creation was a milestone for the local arts community, bringing contemporary art and studio space to a then-relatively undeveloped Peoria riverfront.
With the same attention to detail he put to workas a commercial artist and designer, Butler decided to track his revenue and expenses to see if the studio was a worthwhile venture. “In the first year, I sold $600 worth of art, and that was exactly what I paid for rent,” he explains. “So it paid for itself. I wasn’t going to retire early or anything, but I was encouraged.” The next year, Butler doubled his studio space—and his revenue doubled with it.
As the organization grew and transitioned from the Checkered Raven to the Contemporary Art Center, Butler noted the garbage wasn’t being emptied regularly. After striking a deal to take on some of those menial tasks in exchange for a discount on his rent, he was eventually hired as the building manager. “In the process of doing all that… I got to know all about the building and how things ran,” he explains. But when the CAC board approached him in 1999 about becoming director of the nonprofit art center, he shook his head. “Absolutely not!”
Over the next few years, Butler watched as a rotating cast cared for the CAC, and by the end of 2002, the organization again needed an executive director. With some hesitation, he agreed to take on the role under one condition: that his work would end in April so he could return to his lawn business. By May, however, they still hadn’t found the right candidate, and Butler had a change of heart. More than 15 years later, he still hasn’t left.
While the majority of Butler’s pieces begin as doodles, his latest challenge is to let go of even that initial step and see where the painting carries him.
A Cathartic Experience
“I had so many problems to overcome, and I was doing something I had never done before,” Butler admits, recalling those early days at the CAC. “It was occupying every bit of my mind and my energies and all my creative juices.”
Even as the CAC was developing into a healthy, stable organization, the work took a toll on Butler. “I wanted to continue making art, but I was blocked, completely,” he explains. “I just couldn’t seem to do anything for several years… the first time in my entire life where I did not make art on a regular basis.” The artist inside him found this time period incredibly distressing. “It was like my brain was wired to make art all the time—and so suddenly, not making art was a big deal.”
That’s when he came across an art therapy book that posed a challenge: What if you made art that no one would ever see? No judging, no standards, no one will see it—just enjoy it. “That hit me like a ton of bricks,” he recalls. “So at night, I would sit there and draw whatever popped in my head… Sometimes it would be crap, and sometimes it was like WOW! That is amazing that it came out of me.”
All throughout his life, Butler had created illustrations for clients or artwork he thought someone might want to purchase. When he finally let that go, it was incredibly freeing—“a cathartic experience,” he explains. “I didn’t plan. I had no idea what I was going to do.”
This newfound, anarchic methodology allowed Butler to resume his art making, even as he dealt with day-to-day issues running the CAC. The results are what he is perhaps best known for today: vivid and bulbous forms that invite interpretation—a surprising and sometimes baffling experience for the viewer. “All of the crazy colors and gobbledygook… I don’t even know what it’s about exactly,” he admits.
Butler has recently been working on a series of paintings inspired by synthetic cubism, with foreign forms passing in and out of one another in ghostly patterns—shapes that shouldn’t exist, tricking and challenging the eye. “Depicting something that couldn’t exist is much more of a challenge,” he notes.
While the majority of his pieces begin as doodles, Butler’s latest challenge is to let go of even that initial step and see where the painting carries him, diving further into the mist of surrealism dividing reality and imagination. It means approaching a blank canvas with no plans or expectations, but with inspiration alone.
As an executive director, Butler works hard running the business—often 50 to 60 hours a week. In some ways, his approach to administrative work mirrors that of his creative work: he lets the organization take on a life of its own. With its eclectic array of programming, the Contemporary Art Center is more than an art gallery, a collection of studios or an event center. “I think of us as a cultural center,” Butler explains. The building is always buzzing with life, from Whisper & Shout poetry nights and the Live at the Five Spot concert series, to salsa and swing dancing, yoga and tai chi instruction, art classes and more. Behind the scenes, Butler is the supportive bedrock enabling these programs—the glue holding it all together.
Reflecting on the long, winding path that brought him to the CAC, Butler admits to being a reluctant leader. “I’ve always been reluctant to step forward and be in charge of something. With the Art Center, it was because this is such a cool thing. I didn’t want to see this slip away,” he says, motioning at the vibrant swirl of activities surrounding him. It’s Friday night, and the band is tearing down after another successful Live at the Five Spot gig. As the crowd—a mix of regulars and fresh faces—packs up to leave, they stop to admire the paintings and sculptures that have recently gone on display. Soon this room will fill with students of all ages eager to learn salsa dancing… and, perhaps, find romance. Tomorrow, a completely different crowd will be learning to tango.
They come from all walks of life, attracted to an environment that’s open to everyone—a friendly and unpretentious disposition which Butler strives to maintain. “You don’t need to know anything about art to come in here,” he declares. “Just walking in the gallery is an education.”
Standing quietly, he observes the flurry of movement in the room. “I try not to get too uptight about things in general,” he adds. “I try to stay out of the way of my art; let my art become what it wants to be. I try to stay out of the way of the organization… and let it be what it can be.” Spotting a familiar face in the crowd, he smiles and waves. “I see myself as a steward of the organization,” he finishes, beckoning them over to say hello. a&s