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City Serves As Canvas for Artist

CAMDEN — In a city like Camden, inspiration isn’t hard to come by for artist William Butler.

From his window inside the restored Firehouse No. 6 in the city’s quaint Cooper Grant neighborhood, the Midwest transplant has a view of lush green playing fields and the soaring Ben Franklin Bridge.

Beyond those is the abject poverty of North Camden.

The contemporary art studio and gallery Butler has dubbed Eleven One opened Friday with nearly two dozen pieces of original artwork — all meant to inject the arts into the city.

We saw an opportunity and a great need for art and creativity to break into the city where there really isn’t a vibrant arts community,” the 43-year-old said.

“As we met with a number of leaders and residents, there seemed to be a consensus that it would be great if there was a gallery as a means to have other art coming to the city.”

Three months ago, Butler was living in Des Moines with his wife, Ronja, and their two 11-year-old sons. The husband and wife team established Thomas Lift, a clothing line based on William’s art and graphic design.

Because the Delaware Valley is a direct connection for importing the apparel from the Caribbean, the couple found themselves in Philadelphia and Camden as they traveled to their production site in Jamaica.

“Everything ties together,” Butler mused. “The graphic design connects to the artwork, the artwork connects to the apparel, so we wanted to create a line of clothing that represents the communities we’re working in.”

Two of the pieces in the Camden gallery portray lions crafted in layers of various paints atop large canvases. It’s easy to draw a comparison between Butler and the creatures depicted in the paintings: All three share the same flowing mane and outward confidence.

Other works include landscapes and large works of spiraling shapes in vivid colors. Deeper into the grand hall where firetrucks once stood is Butler’s studio space. Filling a wall are hundreds of bottles of paint in every shade imaginable.

“It’s all mixed media,” he explained. “I have layers of just about anything you can think of in there. Some acrylic, some oil, some latex.”

Butler found the 102-year-old firehouse in North Camden by accident on a drive around the city. The son of a former firefighter who is fascinated with the fire service, Butler saw the large bay doors to the building had been pushed in. A call to police eventually linked him to the building’s owner and a connection was made.

Bryon Yoder, president of the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, sees Eleven One as another means of furthering a cultural renaissance in the area. Already the nearby Walt Whitman Arts Center hosts a number of artistic events year-round.

“Everyone appreciates and recognizes that a lot of revitalization and rebirth in cities happens when artists come in,” Yoder said.

Plans are in the works for a fundraiser later this year with the Waterfront South community group Heart of Camden, where Butler will craft a live painting to be auctioned off for the charity.

Heart of Camden is in the process of rehabbing another former fire station on South Broadway into artist space, which is part of a plan known as “FireWorks.”

“We can start to bridge the north side of the city with the south and bring revitalization to Broadway with arts and entertainment,” Butler said.

Butler’s family, meanwhile, has had to adjust to life in Camden. It’s a stark contrast to Iowa, where William and Ronja were high school sweethearts. But a receptive community has made the transition easier.

Eventually, Butler would like to move his young family to the apartment above the gallery, where he soon plans to craft a series of paintings focused on people making a difference in Camden.

“We’re hoping to live and work right here on this corner,” he said.

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