Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Tyler artist exercises creativity at zoos
If you have been to a zoo, chances are you have seen Williamson Jr.’s work.
TYLER Bill Williamson Jr. doesn’t seem like the busy type at first glance. He relaxes for conversation as easy as his jeans and cowboy hat would suggest.
It is likely, however, that if he lists all of the work projects he undertakes, art he creates, students he teaches and young people he helps on a daily basis, much like this writer, you might forget parts of the list before he finishes explaining them all.
Williamson was born with a renowned East Texas pedigree. His father, the late Billy Houston Williamson Sr., served 10 years in the Texas House of Representatives until 1975. He is credited with installing the Tyler Rose Garden on the state capitol grounds in Austin, helped legislatively create the University of Texas at Tyler and introduced the State House bill that established a pilot respiratory diseases program at the hospital that would later become the UT Health Science Center at Tyler.
As one can attest, however, you can befriend Williamson Jr. for years and he might never mention his father’s political and civic accomplishments. He has found his own path in life.
If you have been to a zoo, chances are you have seen Williamson Jr.’s work. In 1981, he started doing artwork and building rock formations and habitats at Tyler’s Caldwell Zoo. His work soon caught the eye of Les Whitt, the longtime award-winning director of the Alexandria, La., Zoological Park. Under Whitt, the park grew exponentially, and even world-renowned animal expert Jack Hanna spoke highly of Whitt and the zoo on national TV.
Whitt employed Williamson to construct several features at Alexandria Zoological Park. Williamson’s work was so well-received that, following Whitt’s death in 2008, his widow, Lee Ann Whitt, who was named acting zoo director, asked Williamson to create a bronze statue memorial of her husband embracing a tiger.
“They actually hired a well-known artist and they backed out, and I did it pretty much at cost,” Williamson said. “I wanted to make it the best recognition possible for [the late Whitt].”
The living room of Williamson’s south Tyler home is dominated with the materials and foundation of the statue, which he expects to be completed by the end of this year.
Williamson’s creativity has adorned more locations in zoos in Tyler, Alexandria, La., Jackson, Miss., and more than a dozen others. He has built backyard habitats of faux rocks, waterfalls and fauna for several well-heeled clients, and his talents have been employed at Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, another animal refuge in Henderson County and the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, he said.
“A lot of these zoos, they have large companies come in and build these big exhibits based on how an architect wants it built. It has nothing to do with an animal’s habitat, their behavior or personality,” Williamson said. “After it’s done, they’ll call me to come in to fix it because I know how to make the exhibits work.”
Like most East Texans, he won’t hesitate to wake from his bed, leave home and go help a friend. He also spends Saturdays and some weekdays sharing horses with dozens of East Texas kids and adults, some with special needs. He also teaches private art lessons to countless others.