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William Butler | Lessons from GreatPHL

William is known around the country for his live art demonstrations and eloquent paintings. He opened Studio Eleven One in Camden, NJ and is the founder of Thomas Lift, a social enterprise that uses art to rebuild broken cities and lift communities up out of economic disadvantages.

In 2011, William, along with his wife and two sons, made the trek from Des Moines, Iowa to Camden, NJ. People often ask him, why such a peculiar move?

When William and his family decided to move to the east coast, they visited Camden and were struck by the challenges the city was facing. Though they had no family, professional connections, or specific reasson to be on the east coast, William and his wife felt called to settle in Camden after their visit.

Soon after, they established Third Thursdays, an art crawl similar to Philly’s First Friday, during which local artists and business owners could collaborate. Through their own gallery and the art crawl, they forged new connections and carved out space for a creative community in Camden. After five years, William turned the art gallery over to community members, who now manage it independently.

The most remarkable trend William observed was the dissolving of divisions – People who disagreed on certain issues or were part of radically different cultures would often find themselves interacting amicably at art events.

“We really tried to use the gallery and that art space as a way to invite people into a room when they wouldn’t otherwise see each other.”

He reflects on the ‘why’ – Why take such a risk, make such a bold move, and leave everything with which you’re familiar? “When we feel a calling we have to do something about it. You have to pursue that thing that sometimes feels completely out of your reach … Those opportunities to pursue the impossible hold the greatest rewards.”

William talks about a comical first experience in Camden, his unexpected gift to President Obama, and how fusing art and community can fundamentally transform cities.