LONDONDERRY -- Sitting in a cafe, a ham sandwich in hand, William Accorsi looks like a typical older gentleman. But his life story intertwines art, storytelling and color -- as he became, he said, "the most famous artist no one's ever heard of."

Before the studio in New York City, the exhibit at the Smithsonian, the best-selling children's book, he was a young boy, the son of Italian immigrants, playing football in Pennsylvania.

"I became very interested in athletics around the seventh grade, and I decided I would become a great football player and that I would also coach football," he said. "I had to get to college to do that ... and I was a pretty good football player, but what I didn't realize was how big the world is -- and I was small.

William Accorsi’s artwork appears at the Garden Gallery in Londonderry.
William Accorsi’s artwork appears at the Garden Gallery in Londonderry. (Anna Boarini / Manchester Journal)
The most I ever weighed was 155."

Football got him to college, where he discovered his love of art. He decided to take education classes, to become a teacher, and he started to develop his artwork, beginning with crafts in class.

Like many other students learning to become teachers, he first started with simple artwork. He learned crafts he could use in class, focusing on accessible mediums like colored paper, felt and yarn -- all the materials he works with today.

The artistic world pulled him away from football.

"Something told me then, as naive as I was, that I could become quite an artist," he said. "I had to work on it, and I had to grow. "

Accorsi taught elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, for seven years and eventually made his way to New York City, where he opened his own studio in 1962. While he left elementary education, Accorsi was still a teacher. In his gallery and studio he taught art classes, as well as teaching graphic design at The School of Visual Design.

While he taught, Accorsi also continued to make his art. He does everything: sculpture, needlepoint, painting and using all many mediums to create small sculptures.

In the Garden Gallery in Londonderry, Accorsi has two sculptures made out of buttons. He used wires to create the frame of a man and an animal and then filled in the spaces with buttons of all textures and colors. When the light hits these creations, they sparkle and shine, reflecting their colors on any surface that surrounds them.

Tom Platt, owner and curator of the gallery, said he loves Accrosi's art because it's colorful and whimsical. The sculptures made out of buttons and wire are some of his favorites.

"They're museum pieces, color catchers at the right time of day -- when the sun swings around, they're mind blowing," he said. "He's fastidious to detail ... like an old world toy maker."

One of Accorsi's largest shows came in the summer of 1970. At the Smithsonian, he took part in a show hosted by the museum shops. His worked followed a circus motif, and he called the show "Om Pa Pa Circus and Wild West Show."

"I was in the arts and industry building," he said. "It is the same building [as] the Wright brother's airplane."

His show centered on painted wooden figures of circus characters, like weight lifters. The big piece -- the one Accorsi said he just about lost his mind in the process of building -- was a circus elephant. Children could climb onto the back of the elephant, and the long trunk was a slide. The elephant was also painted, with small pieces of wood he cut and painted to create a mosaic look.

As a folk artist, Accorsi said he and other artists like him see the world in a visually different, more emotional way.

"Their view of the world ... is much more in their mind ..., so their work usually does not look as picture perfect," he said. "So over time, these people are regarded as simple folk, regular folk. So my work kind of has that feeling, that I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I'm doing it."

Along with the art, Accorsi has also written many books. While not all of his books have sold more than 100,000 copies, they have received critical acclaim from parenting groups and independent children's book and toy stores. While many of his children's books were what Accorsi called "commercial duds," he has one bestseller. 

His bestselling children's book, "10 Button Book," was born out of his work with felt. The board book, illustrated with his art, also has buttons attached and spots in the story for readers to place the buttons. He had wanted to write a children's book since college, he said, but didn't start until he had been a professional artist for some time.

"When I first started, I had this tremendous feeling that I could not write," he said. "The thing that kind of saved me, my first children's book came out of my sculpture ... it became the starting point for my first children's book."

He continues to work in all facets of art, from sculpture to the written word. He said he's attracted to the magic and the other worldly aspects of creativity.

"Basically I'm interested in kind of poetic parts of art, rather than be so literal." he said. "I just kind of let go, and it flows."