At first glance, the 80-plus paintings on display at Prairie Art Alliance are a circus of styles, techniques, and colors, ranging from black-and-white to psychedelic. What's striking is the diversity of abstracts, dancers, wildlife, portraits, and skyscapes.
More remarkable is the fact that all of these works were produced by one man: John E. Erickson.
Erickson, one of the first men to join PAA and its first artist in residence, died in July. He is being celebrated in a show that concludes Saturday, Jan. 8.
Born in 1934 in Bergland, Mich., Erickson devoted himself to art rather late in life, says Delinda Chapman, his widow. The two met when Erickson was an associate professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Chapman says, "John was interested in art at the time, but with five children, there was no time."
The couple, who retired to Springfield in 1985, immersed themselves in their church and numerous community organizations. "It's fair to say that John was a citizen first and an artist second," Chapman says. But that involvement paid dividends, as evidenced by the large turnout last week for a reception in Erickson's honor.
Before joining PAA, Erickson and several other artists set up a studio in the upper floor of the old Tobin Jewelers building. "There were five or six of them up there, talking and working," Chapman says. "It was an interesting colony at the time."
Organizers began planning the Erickson show in the fall. Although some works were loaned by collectors for the show, much of Erickson's art is still unsold. PAA director Patrick Shavloske says that despite Erickson's community service, Erickson wasn't well known as an artist: "We didn't have the visibility at our earlier Fifth Street location when he was artist in residence. If he had had this kind of exposure in his lifetime, it would have been a different story." PAA relocated a year ago to the new Hoogland Center for the Arts.
Chapman says that her husband was looking for his voice as an artist, a notion borne out by the variety of his paintings. "We had talked about that," she says. "What was his signature? We agreed that his technique of painting by laying down a base of cerulean blue and working over that was the most consistent signature element. He would not paint over that base, and he'd work up from it, almost like a silkscreen technique. It was like he worked backward from the traditional method of putting down a white base."
But Erickson was always willing to experiment. His last paintings, portraits of his daughters, represent a departure from his dark-base technique. Although Erickson worked mainly with acrylic paints, "he always wanted to get into oils," Chapman says. "However, he didn't want the fumes from that medium to permeate the family home, where he always had a studio."
Chapman says that her husband's painting days ended after cancer was detected in February: "He did nothing after the diagnosis. His hands were shaking from the chemotherapy."
A Web site, intended to offer his art to a wider market, is under construction at www.jeeart.com. For more information about Erickson's art, contact Chapman through PAA at 217-544-2787 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Erickson: A Retrospective runs through Jan. 8 at Prairie Art Alliance, 420 S. Sixth St.