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Wednesday, July 25, 2007 07:46 am

Art works

New galleries breathe life into Jacksonville’s town square

Examples of art on display at the Eclectic Artists Co-op and Gallery
Untitled Document Psychedelic collages pop from the wall. Slashed cardboard, tape, wire, spray paint, and charcoal are rendered into cascading waterfalls, a scrapyard, a glowworm. Down the street, photos and other works are on display; one shows a man, a typewriter chained to his ankle, peering into a tavern window. The new galleries and art spaces of Jacksonville, Springfield’s neighbor to the west, draw an unusual mix of visitors. Students, budding artists, farmers, and tourists join curious locals to admire works ranging from figure and portrait paintings of a brunette to abstract paint on Masonite boards to funky handbags emblazoned with the phrase “Strangers with candy.”
Surrounded by rolling fields, Jacksonville is still a farming community, but don’t let the scenery deceive you — this isn’t Mayberry nestled amid the green acres. Illinois College and MacMurray College call the historic community of 20,000 home, and appreciation for the arts in this community has been constant. But with a new crop of ventures shaking up the scene, Jacksonville is becoming a destination for arts lovers from all over the region.
Scott Hall packed his bags and left his Jacksonville farm home 12 years ago. He landed in such cultural centers as Seattle, Atlanta, and Chicago before moving back in October to be closer to his family, back to the farm, and, in his mind, saying goodbye to gallery openings and cultural conversation, the hallmarks of his urban stomping grounds. But when Hall, 35, made his return, Jacksonville’s downtown area wasn’t quite what he remembered. The plaza had had its ups and downs over the years, but Hall came home to a lively district focused on the arts. About the same time Hall was unpacking and settling into the slower pace of small-town living, his hometown’s pulse was quickening. Last fall, the Eclectic Artists Co-op and Gallery and Noir Art Emporium opened their doors around the corner from each other. A budding arts organization, the Imagine Foundation, introduced a list of arts programs, including the Gallery Hop, which would become a monthly seven-stop progressive opening. (The next hop is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3.) “It [Jacksonville] is kind of culturally booming. A lot more people are coming forward and bringing forth new ideas with new businesses and new outlets that we haven’t had in the past,” says Hall, a member of the Imagine Foundation board. “With the downtown being revitalized, it’s just a prime time for expansion in other areas.”
Don’t call Jacksonville’s current surge in interest in the arts a comeback, though. The area’s creative community has been quietly thriving for years. The David Strawn Art Gallery, the Jacksonville Theatre Guild, the Jacksonville Symphony Society, and Illinois College’s McGaw Fine Arts Center, among other venues, are known for a steady stream of monthly programs. “There was something laid out and it was very popular, but those organizations can’t give you something to do every week,” says Clare Lynd-Porter, executive director of the Imagine Foundation, “so there was a sense of enjoying the arts, and then when a group like ours came along and throws a lot more opportunities in, there has been a tremendous response.”
Over the past year the established scene has gotten a shot in the arm, but not in any organized capacity. Instead, three independent endeavors launched within the space of a couple of months.
The Imagine Foundation was originally envisioned as a social-work agency with an artistic edge, but in fall 2005 the nonprofit foundation, now housed in the historic Asa Talcott House, became an arts organization promoting drama, music, and the visual arts. The initial gallery shows weren’t stormed by artsy scenesters clamoring to participate. Lynd-Porter likens the first opening, the Imagine Gallery at Lincoln Land Community College’s Western Regional Center, to yelling across a canyon. “Believe me, it was a long, distant echo from one end of Lincoln Land to the other when I was the only one up there doing shows,” Lynd-Porter says. The foundation needed something to get people off the couch and into the gallery, so Lynd-Porter snagged the idea of a gallery hop from her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. To pull it off, though, she had to find other spaces for art lovers to hop to.
With few dedicated galleries to solicit, Lynd-Porter had to get creative, and that meant using every nook and cranny she could fit a painting in. The first volunteer was Sandy’s Clip to Mania, a small hair salon located on the downtown plaza. After the first hop, in September 2006, custom-frame shop On the Wall joined in. Imagine now curates four hop spots, including the Three-Legged Dog, a popular downtown coffeehouse.
Jacksonville Art Glass, Noir Art Emporium, and the Eclectic round out the seven-stop hop. Lynd-Porter says that more and more people are participating in the hop, and Imagine is selling more and more art. “At first you couldn’t give it away,” Lynd-Porter says. “It has taken a little while for people to understand that there is actually art that you can have.”
That’s not a misconception exclusive to Jacksonville dwellers, says Joshua Cox, co-owner of Noir Art Emporium; it’s a cultural thing. “I think a lot of people don’t ever imagine buying something like that; they don’t even imagine you could buy that. People don’t consider that an option,” Cox says. Now, plenty of people are getting the picture. “Having something every week out there introduces these farmers who may not realize they had an appreciation for the arts, but yet their wife or son or daughter drags them to one of our events and they discover, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool — maybe I do have an appreciation for the arts that I didn’t know I had,’ ” Hall says, “so it’s about getting it out in the community and developing that appreciation.”
In the first six months of 2007, the Imagine Foundation has sold about $10,000 worth of art and another $1,500 in the last week and a half — a marked improvement from the $6,800 the foundation brought in through art sales during its first year.
Noir Art Emporium sold more work than was expected. In the beginning, he didn’t expect to sell anything, Cox says, but the gallery has sold something at almost every show. The Imagine Foundation’s growth spurt and popularity has led to other successful arts endeavors, including camps for children; Art and Dine, which features a gallery talk by the featured artist and a four-course meal; an evening of music dubbed “Night at the Opera”; and a reworking of the foundation’s first full-scale project, the Hot Summer Arts Festival, into a Plein-Air Festival.
“The thing is, you’ve got to support each other and you have to be in it together,” Lynd-Porter says.
“We need the Eclectic, and we need the Noir and Jacksonville Art Glass and the Three Legged Dog and On the Wall, because it will drop off if there are fewer places to go.”

Sean Meek was in the market for a building, something downtown that would serve as an investment. At the same time, his wife, Deea Meek, had her nose in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, a bestselling tome about awakening the creative spirit. In August, Sean, a sculptor, and Deea, a mixed-media artist, moved into a three-story building on East Central Park Plaza, and the Eclectic Artists Gallery and Co-op was born. The couple hosted an opening in September, and at that point, Sean Meek says, demand wasn’t great. The Gallery Hop was just getting started, but Meek’s philosophy is “Everyone is an artist,” and soon locals began signing up to join the co-op.
“We had relatively good response when we initially opened. It’s mostly been by word of mouth,” Meek says. “We chased a few of the artists down. One in particular came in, and she was carrying a unique purse. My wife commented on it, and the member responded [that] she made it.”
In the beginning, the Imagine Foundation and the Eclectic shared the storefront space, but that didn’t last long, Lynd-Porter says. “Immediately we both went through such a growth spurt. There was no room, Lynd Porter says. “There was no room for both of us immediately.”
Right now the co-op consists of 18 members. The gallery is set up for 36 spaces measuring about 6 feet of wall space each. The number of pieces fluctuates, Meek says, but at any given time passersby may see about 100 pieces displayed. “We are trying to make it a community or family of artists. It is kind of a challenge to get people to take the time to be part of a co-op,” Meek says. “We try to make it as accessible as possible without handing out keys to everyone.”
Artists pay $25 a month for a basic membership, which includes a 6-foot display space, and the artist gets to keep 70 percent of his or her sales. Members who pay $50 a month get 12 feet of space, a featured slot once a year, and 80 percent of their earnings. The endeavor isn’t self-sustaining at this point, but Meek didn’t get into the business to make fistfuls of cash. “I consider my wife and I members of the co-op, and our dues are just a little higher than others’,” Meek says. During the July 6 Gallery Hop, artists and onlookers mingled in the Eclectic. Abstract oil paintings, mixed-media pieces, and photography, among other mediums, decorated the white walls and glass cases throughout the gallery. Noir Art Emporium sits just around the corner. “It was interesting that all of a sudden the art community started to bloom,” Meek says. Joshua Cox, Guido Strotheide, and Julie Slater, owners of Noir Art Emporium, were looking for a place to go that wasn’t a restaurant or dive bar, and when the college friends turned Jacksonville professionals were stymied in their search, they took matters into their own hands and looked for a building.
“Originally we found a building around the corner that the Eclectic is in now, and we thought, ‘that’d be a great building,’ ” Cox says. “We called up and somebody had just bought it, and it turns out they were going to put an art gallery there, and we thought, ‘That’s what we wanted to do.’
The trio decided that there was room for more than one gallery in town. They went to work on a State Street storefront around the corner from the Eclectic. When they moved in, Cox, Strotheide, and Slater found a drop ceiling, carpet, old European furniture in the basement, and posters advertising computer processors from the 1970s. “We saw the ceiling above and thought we’d definitely like to open it up, and we assumed there would be great floors underneath,” Cox says. “We spent all last summer stripping it out and tearing stuff down.”
The high ceilings, dark wood floors, and open space seemed destined to house an art space. During the reconstruction phase, the owners came across the gallery’s first piece of art — a painting of a woman that now adorns the gallery’s bathroom — under the rubble. “We wanted something completely different in town; we wanted to make a space that looked different then any other space,” Cox says. “We were looking for artwork that you don’t normally see.”
Cox says he looks for work that Jacksonville residents probably haven’t seen in such media as monoprints, large-scale oil paintings, sculpture installations, and collages, such as those in the gallery’s current exhibition, Elizabeth Ferry’s Moving Through the Landscape, a series of large-scale pieces constructed from such materials as scrap metal and cardboard. Live music is offered a couple of times a week in the hope that the gallery will come to serve as a gathering place. “For forever it seemed like the Strawn Gallery or the colleges would have art openings, and I think they only started the hop one month before we opened anyway, so it kind of, all the pieces sort of fell together at once, it seemed like,” Slater says. “We must have caught on the wave right at the beginning of it,” Cox says. “I think there was always an undercurrent in town of people who wanted to get something going but never really knew how to do it.”

The how-to of finding warm bodies to populate a vibrant arts scene can be tricky. Lynd-Porter now refers to Foundation’s foray into a musical event, dubbed the Jazz Brunch, as “the Jazz Brunch from hell” because the turnout was so dismal.
Imagine Foundation buried the failed Sunday-afternoon event and learned a little something about Jacksonville’s entertainment preferences in the process: The town’s denizens don’t want to spend early Sunday afternoons at the Asa Talcott House.
In a city, Hall says, Sunday afternoons might be great for such an event, but the foundation has to find out what’s good for Jacksonville. “Some things we’ve done have worked immediately, and other things we’ve done either haven’t worked or are taking more time,” Lynd-Porter says.
Jacksonville’s residents seem to like events they can incorporate into their daily lives, Lynd-Porter says. They like the comfort of walking around downtown. They like going to Lonzerotti’s Italia Restaurant to eat Italian cuisine and drink wine.
The central plaza is home to a number of buildings that need a significant amount of work, but, Meek says, very few structures are completely vacant.
“There’s definitely a large portion that need work, and I see that is happening,” Meek says. “It’s really turning into more of an arts-and-entertainment district.”
Last Thursday a group of downtown-Jacksonville business owners, including those from Noir, the Eclectic, and Jacksonville Art Glass, got together to shoot a video depicting revitalization efforts for a contest run by an international housewares corporation, which was asking for videos of budding main streets from around the country. The prize is $50,000 in merchandise and $5,000 in cash.
Imagine Foundation showcases the work of a blend of local artists and such out-of-towners as Sergio Gomez from Chicago’s Gallery 33 and a few Wisconsin-based artists. Many of the visiting artists notice Jacksonville’s artist-friendly atmosphere.
“This is a great community for welcoming artists,” Lynd-Porter says. “One of the guys from Wisconsin now calls Jacksonville his vacation home.”
Jake Sorrill, an Imagine Foundation intern and local photographer, says that the opportunities he’s been afforded in Jacksonville wouldn’t be the same if he lived in a larger city. Sorrill, just 17 years old, has seen the value of his work triple in some cases and has already had his first adult art show.
Baltimore transplant and trained classical singer Joel Tinsley has his own success story. After Tinsley moved to Jacksonville, the foundation began employing him as music director, and now when he’s not performing Shakespeare for preschools he’s hosting “Night at the Opera” at the Asa Talcott House.
“We employ bands in the area for the different functions we have,” Tinsley says. “The musicians as well as the artists are constantly coming in and introducing new things to us.”
“What we seem to do well is to create a community for artists and musicians and performers that makes them feel happy,” Lynd-Porter says. “When we do that, the community wants to come watch it. That seems to really be our niche.”
Lynd-Porter says she isn’t shooting for a goal with regard to the number of galleries, just stability and predictability, and she’s not rushing the small community along: “It will grow as it grows.”
Meek says that although the Eclectic isn’t profitable, he and Deea knew that it wouldn’t make money, and that wasn’t the goal when they started the labor of love anyway. Noir Art Emporium owner Cox says that the lounge aspect of the business hasn’t taken off as hoped, but he and his fellow owners have plans in the works for a movie day to encourage visitors. “This town has been incredible,” says Lynd-Porter. “We really can do anything we want, if we can work out the money.”

Contact Marissa Monson at  mmonson@illinoistimes.com.
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