When you’re looking at one of Timm Etters’s airbrushed murals, you might first notice the brilliant color, the captivating dimension, or even just its sheer size.
“They are just striking. It’s like they reach out to you,” says Joan Mills, art teacher at Fry Elementary School in Naperville. “The colors are just so vibrant, and the contrast is just beautifully done. It’s obviously realism, but it also has that sense of otherworldliness to it.”
Etters, 49, of Volo, in Lake County, has painted hundreds of murals in local schools over the last three decades, but his influence extends beyond the walls of those gyms, hallways, and cafeterias. Through his artist-in-residence program, he has shared his inspiring story of overcoming obstacles and starting his own art business as a teen.
LIVING IN COLOR
Etters was in third grade when he discovered he was colorblind. An art teacher noticed he was struggling with colors and took him to the school nurse for a vision test. “I remember being pretty devastated,” Etters says. “I was like, ‘All I want to do is be an artist, and now I’m not going to be able to.’ ” The teacher suggested focusing on pencil drawing, and Etters took that advice to heart. “So from third grade all through high school, I drew and drew and drew. Every day,” he says.
At Cary-Grove High School, a budding love for hip-hop and graffiti inspired him to bring color back into his work. Then everything came to a standstill when, after a freak accident slipping in the bathtub, a doctor discovered he had stage 4 testicular cancer. To give himself something to look forward to during recovery, Etters started his own art business selling fellow students hand-drawn portraits and custom T-shirts painted with an airbrush he bought with money from his get-well cards.
Though the airbrush still remains Etters’s chosen tool, it was spray paint that inadvertently introduced him to school murals in 1985. After he was found responsible for marking a bridge with graffiti—an elaborate memorial to Vietnam veterans—the police officer, who was a vet himself, was so touched he gave Etters a creative punishment: 132 hours of community service painting a mural in his high school’s cafeteria.
SPEAKING TO STUDENTS
Etters offers an artist-in-residence program for schools in which he speaks about his life story in an assembly-style presentation that includes artwork from his grade school years. “It’s more directly relatable, rather than just showing them my [professional] work … and having them look it and say, ‘I could never do that,’ ” Etters says. “I kind of bring it down a few notches so they can really plug into it and say, ‘I can totally do this.’ ”
“The message he really gives is: Follow your passion and never give up—which is one we want our kids to hear and engage with,” says Tracy Dvorchak, a former principal at Prairie Elementary School who is currently at the helm of Naper Elementary School. Etters created a new logo for Prairie and completed an artist-in-residence program with the students prior to painting a mural in their gym five years ago.
Students also try out Etters’s airbrush tools. “They get to … paint their names up on a banner in different colors,” Etters says. “If there’s a school of 800 kids, then there’s 800 names in different colors and it looks like modern art … like a graffiti version of Jackson Pollock.”
Etters paints his murals while school is in session, rather than after hours or during school breaks. “We actually held PE right while he was doing it,” Dvorchak says. “He’s just over on the side, up on his scaffolding, and all the kids got to see him in action … and see the progress going along.” Because of the artist-in-residence program, Dvorchak says, “they had an understanding of how he did his work and they felt really connected to him.”
In recent years, health hurdles—depression, an injured tendon in his drawing arm, and spinal stenosis—have made the already physically demanding task of mural painting increasingly difficult for Etters. “There are days when it takes me two or three hours to get going in the morning … but I can work once I get going; it’s just harder,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that’s never really been talked about, that people have often wondered about: ‘Why doesn’t Timm get here at 8 in the morning?’ or ‘Why doesn’t he have a regular schedule?’ … I hope it encourages other people that, you know, you’re going to have struggles, setbacks, and roadblocks.”
And his colorblindness? Etters has a number of strategies to overcome his vision limitations during mural painting. “One of those strategies is named Vicki,” he says, referring to his wife. “I can call her during the day at work and I’ll send her a picture and I’ll say, ‘What color is this?’ And she won’t say ‘red’ or ‘blue,’ she will say specific shades of red of blue that I will identify with.” Etters also uses technology to help, such as a Sherwin Williams color-matching app and Photoshop’s eyedropper tool. “There are times when I’ve built a relationship with kids [at the school I’m working at] where I can trust them. They know I’m colorblind and I’ll say, ‘Hey, in your best description, what color is this?’ And they’ll tell me or even help me mix it. It becomes a cool connection.”
Etters’s lifelong goal is to paint as many murals as Norman Rockwell painted Saturday Evening Post covers (see sidebar). “He’s one of my favorite painters,” Etters says. “He worked [there] for 43 years and painted, I think, 322 Post covers. … which meant, for me, that 323 would be where I could sit down and say, ‘I did it.’ ”
To date, Etters has completed 310 murals and has a six-month-long wait list for future projects. Somewhere around mural 307, he had an interaction with a student that he says he will never forget. “I had just finished a presentation at a school and, health-wise, I was really struggling,” he says. “This little girl comes up to me and … she says, ‘Mr. Etters, you only have 16 murals to go. You can do this!’ ” he says. “I was like, oh my gosh. I’m not going to let her down.”