Long before William Crute had his first one-man show, he was staging exhibits for other artists.

For 13 years, in fact, his Hilton Village Gallery ranked among the region's most successful, helping build the careers of such prominent figures as Barclay Sheaks and Williamsburg talent Carlton Abbott.

All during that time and even before, however, Crute labored on his own work when he could and thought about it when he couldn't. Even after closing his gallery in 1993, then shifting careers to work with at-risk and gifted kids, he kept thinking of the day when all he had to do was pay attention to the way his brush moved across the canvas.

Still, no one knew how his gamble would pan out four years ago when the self-taught artist took early retirement to concentrate on his painting.

But all the extra time spent in his modest home studio has not only resulted in awards and representation by several commercial galleries but also a well-received solo exhibit at This Century Art Gallery in Williamsburg.

"I wasn't getting any younger -- and I wanted to give it my best effort. I wanted to see what I could accomplish. So, at 61, I took this leap of faith," Crute says.

"Since then I've been much more focused. I've produced more work than I ever have. And I can do paintings now that I could never have dreamed of doing before."

Few things were further from Crute's mind as a kid growing up on the family farm in south central Virginia during the late 1940s.

For most of his first four years, his grandparents, parents and older sisters traced his coming and going by the accompanying cavalcade of 5 hunting hounds and 2 bird dogs. His world revolved around such vivid sights, sounds and smells as the horses in the fields, the animals rustling in the barn and the warm feeling of a freshly laid egg plucked from its nest on a cold winter morning.

Working in the heart of the tobacco belt, his family was part of a long tradition that reached back to the Revolution -- when one of them served on Lafayette's staff -- and into the 1600s.

"I can still see it all -- the big barn, the big old country house my grandparents lived in, the staircase I slid down as a kid," he says.

"But I'm the only Crute that hasn't been a farmer."

Crute and his family moved to the Peninsula in 1948, when his father took a job at the shipyard.

They lived in a small Hampton home built on what had been the Willis-Eaton farm, and he attended Willis-Sims-Eaton Elementary School.

Inspired by a set of drawings passed down in his family, he picked up a passion for the pencil at an early age and began copying photographs from magazines. At school, he loved the time he spent making art in the hallway.

"If you finished all your work, you got to go out and do murals -- and that was freedom to me," he says.

"So I always got my work done as fast as I could so I could draw and paint."

Not until after he graduated from high school and started taking night classes at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., however, did Crute encounter his real work of art.

Working as a file clerk for the FBI, he visited the National Gallery of Art during a day off. And what he saw changed his life.