By Britne Reeves
Tucked away in Ben Wheeler’s art gallery, The Walking Horse Gallery, is jack-of-all tradesman and curator Bill Williamson.
Williamson looks like a hardworking, cowboy-hat wearing man that has rough hands and a tough personality, but look at his art and you’ll see much more.
Williamson has contributed beautiful art pieces to various establishments such as the Discovery Science Center in Tyler, the fish hatchery in Athens and Tyler Junior College but he is also leaving his mark on zoos across the country. Among his accomplishments are the creation of chimpanzee enclosures, black bear habitats and the renovation of an otter exhibit.
Williamson has been responsible for the creation of most of the exhibits in Tyler’s Caldwell Zoo, and other zoo exhibits in the surrounding area and as far away as Tennessee. He was the Caldwell Zoo’s artist for a number of years.
Williamson’s portfolio is filled with various drawings of animals, advertising illustrations for zoos and portraits.
During his time as an exhibit curator, Williamson renovated and reconstructed many of the exhibits now seen at various zoos across the country. “I started drawing as a young kid. I ended up taking classes at TJC, Baylor University and The Art Institute of Houston. I also gained experience through projects that I completed. I was an employee at Caldwell Zoo and started doing their advertising work for them and it just went off from there,” he said.
One of his most memorable exhibits is a chimpanzee exhibit in Knoxville, Tenn., Williamson said. “I can remember working on a chimpanzee exhibit; it was on two acres and had 30 feet of rock going up. It had a waterfall that was 160 feet long, with a 30 foot drop in the Knoxville, Tenn. zoo. We had to use artificial rock because if we used river stone rock and mortared them into place, they would come lose in the winter. If the chimps figured it out that the stones could be picked up and moved, they would use the rocks as weapons,” he said. “Those chimps were scary smart.”
The chimp exhibit was a lengthy process, taking the zoo more than eight years to complete with Williamson rounding off the project in nine months.
Surprisingly, the process of building an enclosure at a zoo starts at a local hardware store, Williamson said.
“Everything someone would need to build an exhibit or a waterfall or something along those lines can be found in a home improvement store,” he said. “You start out with rebar, and you bend and create it. Then you put wire mesh over your rebar with plaster and then concrete and then the base of your exhibit is made. Its pretty much all trade secrets, you watch people work and you start building stuff yourself.”
Williamson also has a talent for bronze-making – that’s what he contributes to The Walking Horse Gallery in Ben Wheeler.
“I was working at a zoo when one of the directors passed away. He was a mentor and a friend and I was commissioned to do a bronze of him,” Williamson said. “That is probably my biggest accomplishment. It gave birth to the gallery. The gallery, at that time, wanted me to bring in my bronze along with some other artists and do a show. It went over so well that it became permanent. The bronze traveled from Ben Wheeler to the Memorial Plaza in Alexandria, La., at that zoo, where it is now a part of the zoo.”
Williamson’s bronze work can be seen at the Caldwell Zoo and also at The Walking Horse Gallery in Ben Wheeler, which he said “is very horse and artist friendly.”