Painting History, Nebraska Native Completes Ambitious Project

March 6, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Legacy of Nebraska artist Todd Williams in front of one of his paintings. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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It’s taken him five years, but Nebraska native and painter Todd Williams is finally ready for a vacation. He’s been working nonstop since 2011, completing 124 paintings of people, places and historical events. They represent Nebraska’s 93 counties and the last 150 years. The project is one of a kind.

When Todd Williams walked into the third floor gallery at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln last week and saw all 124 of his paintings on the walls for the first time, all his doubts were gone in an instant.

“For some reason in my mind, I didn’t think it was going to be able to fill the space,” Williams said as he looked around the gallery. “I thought my paintings would be overwhelmed by such a large space. It’s stunning. I’m deeply humbled.”

Legacy of Nebraska collection at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. (Photo by Jack William, NET News)

The idea for his “Legacy of Nebraska” project actually started during several trips to Europe in 2005 and 2007. The smaller collections that came out of those trips turned into a bigger idea. Why not a series of paintings on Nebraska?

“I started on my grandma and grandpa’s farm in Hordville, which is in Hamilton County,” he said. “Just sat there on location, did a painting, and thought I want to go into all 93 counties. Some will be done in plein air and then others will be done in the studio from photo reference.”

That was in 2011 and he’s been at it ever since. The resulting oil paintings are a mix of important historical events and prominent people, including former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, Chief Blackbird, Lewis and Clark and Johnny Carson. Williams also painted landscapes across the state. He started and finished each painting before he went on to the next one. He used clove oil to keep his paint fresh.

“My approach is what’s called alla prima, and what that means is 'wet in the wet,'” Williams said. “I don’t actually start one painting and maybe do a layer or two and then go to another painting and do a layer or two. I start one painting and I don’t go on to the next one until that one’s finished.”

Don and Joyce Williams, artist Todd Williams' parents. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Williams didn’t start the project with the state’s 150th birthday in mind, but after a conversation with someone from the State Historical Society, he approached Nebraska Sesquicentennial organizers with the idea of the collection.

“I don’t think anybody has done anything like this before. To really do a collection of paintings in oil to preserve that history,” he said. “These paintings will outlast us all.”

His father, Don Williams, is 81 years old and says he knew his son would be successful, but he didn’t expect this. Todd Williams grew up in Central City, Nebraska and it was obvious he knew what he wanted to do from a young age.

“I had a refrigeration and appliance store in Central City years ago,” Don Williams said. “I tried to get the boys to help me and he said, 'No dad, I don’t want to hurt these hands.' He knew he was going to be an artist.”

Legacy of Nebraska Exhibition in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Todd Williams says it might be time for a vacation. In fact, he’s planning a river cruise in Europe soon after putting his heart and soul into his Nebraska painting project for the past five years.

“This was a constant, just a discipline really,” Williams said. “I had so much love and pride for my home state of Nebraska that I wanted to do my utmost and very best for this project.”

So what’s next for Williams?

“It always comes back to the surface of the paint, so I think for Todd Williams the artist, that’s kind of what’s coming next,” he said. “I’m going to be experimenting and doing larger paintings, but really focusing creatively on the paint itself.”

The Legacy of Nebraska collection will be at the Nebraska History Museum through June 4th and will later make stops in Omaha, Grand Island, Alliance and Scottsbluff among other cities through early next year.