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Creating art in the shadow of the food court
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As far as art studios go, Williams says you can’t beat a 4.2-million square-foot shopping center. His work is seen by up to 600,000 potential customers a week. Plus, he’s the first to know when there’s a good shoe sale. Of course, the space has one major drawback. Williams admits people don’t always have a lot of respect for an artist who sets up shop between the "As Seen on TV" store and the Mighty Axe amusement park ride. (MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel)
For centuries, artists have used caricature to cast a satirical eye on the human condition. Renaissance artists used distortion to lambaste the rigidity of their everyday lives. During the 1700s, caricaturists were praised for stripping people of the pretense that was typically displayed in formal portraits. Even Claude Monet got his start drawing his fellow citizens with bulging eyes and grotesquely large noses. Today, caricature art often takes a backseat to its popular cousin, the political cartoon. But, if you look hard enough, you'll find the art form is alive and well.

Bloomington, Minn. — Some Minnesota artists set up their easels on the banks of the Mississippi River. Others choose to create in the comfort of their downtown lofts. Joe Williams finds his artistic inspiration next to the Ripsaw Roller Coaster. Williams is a caricaturist. He works at the Mall of America, in the shadow of Camp Snoopy, the largest indoor theme park in the nation.

“I just like that atmosphere, that circus environment,” says Williams. “I always wanted to run away to the circus when I was a kid, so here I am.” Williams never imagined he'd make a living drawing buckteeth and oversized ears. The Minnesota native has a bachelor's degree in fine art and is skilled in everything from graphic design to oil painting. None of his formal training taught him how to paint portraits with an airbrush or how to get a woman to appreciate a work of art that makes her look like a donkey.

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Image Turning customers into cartoons

Years ago, Williams was a stereotypical starving artist. He took a job as a caricaturist solely as a way to make money. But he quickly realized he had knack for capturing the personality of his subjects.

“If they're real giddy and cheesy, I want to get it on paper -- that person," says Williams.

Armed solely with six colors of acrylic paint and thirty pounds of air pressure, Williams has a great deal of power over the way people perceive themselves.

“You've got to be smart in this kind of business,” explains Williams. “You don't get a little 12-year-old girl in the chair and give her this big huge nose from forehead to chin and big ears like she's going to fly away. She would have been walking around for 10 years saying, ‘There's that jerk that ripped my face apart on paper. I hate him.’”

Williams says he usually tries to capture the silly side of people's personalities -- but not always. Some people just rub him the wrong way.

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Image Capturing kids

“People that shouldn't really get their caricature drawn are the ones that walk up with this demeanor about them,” says Williams. “They'll say, ‘I look too good for you to mess up.’ And I'm thinking, ‘Oh, no, you don't.’ If somebody sits in the chair with that kind of attitude, I'm gonna draw him just evil as he is. Now remember, I look for personality. And if he’s evil, I’m gonna capture that on paper. I’m gonna give him a turned up eyebrow, a bulging eyeball. How can he be mad? That's who he is. If he get mad at how the picture looks, well, he should be mad at himself then.”

Williams looks like a subdued version of Mr. T. -- minus a few of the gold chains. But despite his resemblance to the tough-talking television icon, this artist is one of most benevolent guys you could ever meet. For a grown man, he uses the word ‘goofy’ with astonishing frequency. And he gets flustered when female customers get a little too flirtatious -- as one did recently.

“I figured the only way I could get rid of her was to accentuate her nose, her features, or whatever I could do without insulting her, but just make fun of her,” reveals Williams. “And then maybe if I drew her that way she would think I saw her in a way she that she didn't want me to see her in. So, I got busy. I went into my cartoon world. I had her looking like a female version of Grandpa Munster. And I didn't have to say anything. She got my message. I wish life was that easy all the time. Just draw somebody silly, and they'll leave you alone.”

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Image Drawing a crowd

Williams says painting thousands of portraits a year has given him valuable insight into the sexes.

“Women, you learn, if you don't do anything right, you draw their hair right,” says Williams. “They spent a lot of time and money on their hair. Give them their highlights, and they're happy. Even if you draw em looking like a goat, they’re say, ‘Oh, he did my hair right, I love him.’ And the men, it doesn't matter. They don't care. The wives don't care. You don't care. You just draw the shape of it and fill it in.

In some circles, people are judged on their wealth or their job title. In Williams' world, value is placed on things like bushy eyebrows and cleft chins.

Williams points out one of his favorite types of chins as he draws, “I love those little butt chins. They give the face added character,” says Williams. “There're people out in California that pay money to get those little butt chins cut in."

On this particular afternoon, Williams sketched a Wisconsin choir group, four pairs of siblings, two fathers with babies, a couple of newlyweds, two tourists from India, and a surprising number of solo adults.

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Image Art therapy

Williams gets a lot of special requests. Teenagers want pictures without their braces and blemishes. Tired-looking women in sweat pants want to be painted with eye shadow and lipstick. And, on this day, one man requested that he be drawn with his three-day stubble removed. “We're not barbers, we're artists,” says Williams. “When they ask you to that stuff, like, ‘Shave my beard off,’ that makes you really want to draw 'em silly. There’s a penalty to pay for stuff like that. And I’ll figure it out as I draw."

Williams likes to think of himself as a psychologist with a pressurized paintbrush. And he's convinced that his caricatures allow people to better accept themselves and their imperfections.

“That's my way of talking to people about themselves and about me,” says Williams. “Humor is a powerful element. It just kind of seeps in. It's not forceful. But if people are laughing about something, they accept it more. Caricature art is like therapy."

Williams believes he's helped thousands through the healing power of humor. And he's certain he's the only therapist who's set up a successful practice between a shopping mall escalator and an amusement park shooting gallery.

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