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Making art allows him to give back

Terry Williams uses tissue paper and acrylic paint to create works like Blues Alley.

When Terry Williams got word last week that he had won an $8,000 grant from the Minnesota Arts Board, he and his wife shared a high five. Then they announced their good news to pretty much everyone they knew.

It was a big deal for the Rosemount couple, the latest sign that Terry made the right decision 10 years ago when he left behind a collection of pay-the-bills jobs to dedicate himself to being a full-time artist.

It's been a long and sometimes sweaty journey. Back when he first realized he no longer wanted to be a telemarketer or work construction, he literally walked the streets looking for a foothold in the Twin Cities art world. With five or six paintings strapped to his back, he went from gallery to gallery looking for someone willing to display his work. To his surprise, he found many of the galleries very welcoming.

"That gave me a lot of confidence," said Williams, who moved to Rosemount with his family two years ago and spends most of his days working from a studio in the basement of their townhome. "I'd do a show here and a show there."

Williams started as a painter, but these days he works mainly with tissue paper and acrylics. He glues the paper to a backing, then scrunches and swirls it to get the look he wants. From a distance, it could be paint, but up close there is a three-dimensional quality to the work. Williams paints over the top of the paper because otherwise the colors fade quickly. The finished products, some of which take 100 hours or more, are vibrant scenes featuring musicians or basketball players, wine bottles or wildlife. Currently he is creating a series of abstract works.

Williams' career grew steadily from those original gallery shows. Over the years there were more galleries and art fairs. Last year, he attended 30 shows. His wife, Christine, is his business manager as well as an artist in her own right.

The couple's current schedule is a far cry from the earliest days of Williams' career as an artist. He was 9 years old when his family moved from St. Louis to North Minneapolis. He liked to draw, but mostly he was interested in comic book characters. He was hanging out with friends one day when a man asked for help moving boxes into a building.

"He's pretty crafty," Williams said. "He probably had a plan for us."

The man was an artist named Bill Svendsgaard, and he helped start the first 4-H club in North Minneapolis. Williams gives Svendsgaard credit for putting a paintbrush in his hand. He let Williams paint a mural - a collection of Fat Albert characters - on the walls of the center where the club met. And he nurtured Williams' early interest in art until it bloomed like the flowers in some of the young artists' earliest paintings. Whenever he attends an art fair, Williams brings with him a book he calls his art Bible, a scrapbook Svendsgaard put together for him filled with photos, news stories and a purple ribbon Williams earned at the Hennepin County Fair.

The help Williams got from Svendsgaard has made him passionate about being a mentor. He volunteers in the schools in North Minneapolis, and he's made it a goal to start a non-profit organization and build the kind of community center he once got to decorate with paintings of cartoon characters.

"We've got to build something the kids can come to," he said.

This grant is the next step in that process. The Minnesota State Arts Board's Cultural Community Partnership grant will allow Williams to create works he says will tell the stories of residents in North Minneapolis. He plans to create several large-format pieces, mostly focusing on the community that formed after a tornado destroyed hundreds of homes two years ago.

"I saw a unity," said Williams, who still has family in north Minneapolis. "I saw people coming together and putting their differences aside.... It touched me. It really did."

This is the second year Williams has applied for the grant. He and his wife attended grant-writing seminars after their application went unfunded last year.

Williams already has many of the ideas for these works in his head, including one that will feature community members of all ages rebuilding a home brick by brick. He expects to spend about 500 hours on the project altogether, and will display the finished works at North Minneapolis' FLOW art crawl in July and at a solo exhibit later in the year.

Williams hopes this grant will be the first of many. For now, though, he's happy just to have the one.

"It made me feel like it's not for nay," he said. "It was nice to know the hard work we put in paid off."

That seems worth a high five.