October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,”

-Aaryon Williams

With an international basketball career spanning Peru, Denmark, Iceland, and Mexico, most 30-year-olds might be tempted to coast. Not Aaryon “Bird” Williams. The prolific artist and arts supporter is in the legacy construction business.

aayronwilliams3Williams has directed well-known local mural projects, such as the Terence Crawford Mural (inside Miller Park Elementary) and the Love Mural (at 24th and Lake streets behind Love’s Jazz and Art Center). He’s a spoken word artist and regular at Verbal Gumbo at House of Loom. His painting “The Butterfly and the Bee,” a tribute to Muhammad Ali pictured in victory over Joe Frazier, was unveiled at Carver Bank, where Williams puts his art management education to use as a program director.

Williams is tall and charming, especially when talking about his passions. He looks equally at ease suited up in the VIP room or paint-splattered in the studio. But when speaking of the past, he looks down as if haunted.

“Born” and “failed” are the two most significant words Williams associates with his old hometown: Gary, Indiana. According to the Department of Justice, Gary is one of six American pilot communities targeted by the federal government for nationally publicized civil rights abuses. A model American ghetto. Not exactly the land of opportunity for a young black man.

“I failed there, miserably,” Williams says of his time in Gary. “After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound. I had no money, no friends, a small group of family members, and a high school GPA of 0.56 as an incoming senior.”

“After my older sister died of lupus, I moved to Omaha on my 18th birthday by Greyhound.”

-Aaryon Williams

Fortune reversed itself when Williams enrolled at North High School in 2004. There, unlike in Gary, he got the palpable sense that people wanted him to do well, motivating him to do better than an F average.

aayronwilliams2“I met teachers and administrators who actually wanted to see me succeed. That was important. Kids need a community that shows them they can be successful and invests in their success,” says Williams. “I became the star of our basketball team, one of the leading art students of my class, sang solo for high school a cappella men’s group, and scored a 3.25 GPA my first semester. Turned out, I wasn’t as incompetent as I thought.”

That formative time changed his life, and working with Omaha youth has been a priority for Williams ever since. He’s worked for Girls, Inc., the UNMC Wesley House Leadership Academy, Impact One gang intervention, and Omaha City Sprouts Garden to name a few.

“I always had a passion for working with kids and inner-city youth,” says Williams. “I stepped away from basketball in 2010 because I’m about more than how high I can jump.”

Williams is founder and director of FLIYE Arts Company, a group providing resources and support to talented young artists. “It’s an acronym that stands for ‘Focused, Liberated, Intelligent, Youthful, Extraordinary.’ It’s a combination I used while transitioning from Gary to inspire and encourage myself.”

Williams is also founder and director of the FLIYE Arts Youth Development (FAYD) after school mentoring program at Omaha North High where kids have lined up to learn from metro area experts.

“FAYD specializes in building better artists and intellectuals through mentoring. We want kids at North—and eventually at other Omaha high schools—to have the chance to meet and learn from people who can help them achieve their goals. Kids need a community support system to be successful, and that’s what we give them.”

Visit facebook.com/fliyeartsco for more information. Omaha

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