April Choi has a Flair for Fire

Peoria, Illinois flow artist April Jennifer Choi performing with a fire whip. Photo by Craig Stocks

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

If you happen to see a video of someone playing Jenga with a whip or performing tricks with a flaming fire whip there’s a very good chance it’s April Choi working the whip. April combines the inquiring and calculating mind of an engineer with the grace of a dancer, a flair for fire and a passion for teaching to create new props and tools and teach others how to use them.

April grew up in a number of areas of the country and ended up in Iowa before coming to Peoria a few years ago as a contract research engineer at Caterpillar Inc.  Her technical background includes a bachelors and masters in mechanical engineering with specialties in combustion systems and computational flow dynamics. She loves to combine her engineering side with her creative energy.

April’s mother started her in dance classes at a very young age as a way to keep her occupied and supervised. Later April got into ballroom and Latin dance competition and teaching before joining the University of Iowa swing club where she became known as a blues and swing instructor.

The next big change came when she discovered flow performance while teaching dance at a circus performance workshop. “I like the dance aspect,” she said, “but didn’t really like it until about a year ago when I started getting into fire eating and ways to make it magical.  With flow performance you can lose yourself in the performance.”  (Wikipedia defines flow arts as, “playful movement arts involving skill toys that are used to evoke the exploration of dynamic, flowing, and sequential movements.”)

Flow and fire performance also provides a great way to utilize her engineering side. Talking to April you quickly realize that she loves designing flow props as much as using them.  “I love the performance aspect but my heart and soul goes into the technical aspects of things,” she explained.  “I like combustion engines but I really like the thermal fluid process. For CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] it’s the actual equations that govern fluid dynamics – why fluid dynamics works.  I like the math behind it.  For the flow arts I like the physics of how all the elements interact.”

April spent months finding the perfect way to manufacture ideal fire whip, and is currently working on a new project.  “It starts with inspiration,” she said.  “The one I’m currently working on is a dragon staff with spikes on the ends that increase the inertia to keep it spinning. The idea is that if you put a bearing on the end then the spikes can continue to rotate. So, if we use clutch bearings we can do moves that you can’t normally do with a dragon staff.

“Then I start going through the design specs for the diameter of the staff, find the correct bearings, etc. I start manipulating the numbers in a CAD model and eventually build a bill of material, buy it, then build it.

“Research and development is my favorite part.  Once I know how to manufacture it for the least amount possible – I’m bored.  I don’t like the business management, I like the project management, process control, quality control and mechanical engineering.  I want to concentrate on the mechanical design,” she explained.

April also puts a lot of energy into creating videos, both promotional and educational. Her promotional videos have landed her some exciting spots performing whip trick on network TV including “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and a variety show in Europe that’s broadcast to all of the Dutch speaking regions.

She’s also very excited about her teaching videos. “I absolutely love teaching,” she said. “To be able to teach something using all of the different forms of teaching and to be able to explain it to each and every kind of person; you have to get all the way down to the roots and understand the process to be an effective teacher.”

April is certainly not standing still and she has many more exciting things to come – including some whip-related world records.  Keep up with her on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Update – April created and posted a Behind the Scenes video on YouTube showing how we did a “Wall of Fire” photo.  You can see it here on YouTube.

Dana Baldwin Knows the Shear Pleasure of Being an Arist

Peoria, Illinois fiber artist Dana Baldwin modeling her dress made from Tyvek, photo by fine art photographer Craig Stocks

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Peoria, Illinois fiber artist Dana Baldwin has had a passion for art for as long as she can remember. In fact, her earliest memory is sitting at her father’s feet in New Orleans coloring in his medical books.

Her father was an Air Force doctor so they moved quite a lot. When she was just 11 years old and living in Spain she came across an older woman “knitting the most beautiful and complicated lace pattern. It was like her fingers had eyes on the ends,” she recalled. “I was just mesmerized and I thought, ‘I want to learn to do that.'” She asked her mother to teach her how to knit, but it just didn’t seem to work.

That was also when she was also learning to play flamenco guitar and even though she’s left handed they taught her to play right handed. She realized she might have the same problem learning to knit from her right-handed mother. So, she switched to knitting right handed and it worked marvelously. “At that point I gave up coloring and focused on fiber arts.” After one of her macramé pieces won 1st place in both the 4H and county fairs she decided, “Oh, this is what I wand to do with my life; I want to be a fiber artist.”

When college time rolled around she wanted to major in fiber arts but her parents convinced her to major in something more marketable which led to advanced degrees in clinical nutrition. “I had really great training, but I hated it,” she said.  “I felt like an artist trapped in a dietician’s body. I worked, but my default was always art. I always wanted to get my work done so I could do art.” Eventually she quit working and became a stay-at-home mom, but was still knitting whenever she could.

Dana explained that she never really felt like an artist or a designer “because I can’t draw my design, and that’s what I thought designers did.” But, when her husband suggesting entering her work in a wearable art show where they were living in Virginia she stated winning  top awards. “Maybe I really do have some talent,” she realized.

Her  watershed moment came after moving back to Peoria in 2011. She was quickly hired as a dietician by a local hospital and while sitting in orientation they explained to the new recruits that they would all get to come to the hospital retreat on an upcoming weekend. “I don’t need you to plan my free time!” she thought, so she got up and walked out.  With a new resolve she decided “It’s now or never, and I’m just going to go for it.”

Back in Peoria Dana became reacquainted with the late Maryruth Gin whom she had known in high school and the two hit it off perfectly.  They decided to open “The Sheared Edge” in the Sunbeam Building on Sheridan.

Smaller items provide a lot of stability for a business, but Dana really enjoys making the “big dresses.”  She never knows where they’re going to end up. “I have a vague idea,” she explained. “I go into some weird place in my head.  I just start playing around but I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I guess if I knew what it was going to look like I wouldn’t make it.  It’s like giving birth.”

One of her favorite creations is the Tyvek dress named “Marilyn.”  While in Virginia she met Marilyn, an older woman and fellow fiber artist.  Marilyn created a number of unique pieces using Tyvek and showed Dana how to work with it.  “It didn’t look like Tyvek but it was beautiful,” she explained. She was surprised to learn that Marilyn’s brother worked for DuPont and had invented Tyvek.

“I only had two weeks to prepare the dress and had been sick and just wasn’t feeling well,” she said. “First I had painted it but it needed something more so I just started writing everything I was thinking on the dress.”

Dana feels strongly about following her passion.  “It’s difficult being an artist,” she said, “because you’re not following the prescribed way.  I get up and work at home, then go to the studio, then come home and work some more.  It’s not easy.  I did a lot of soul searching sitting in that orientation and I decided I should have the right to live my life using the gifts that God gave me.”

For more information visit www.shearededge.com or find Dana on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheShearedEdge. You can also visit The Sheared Edge at 925 N. Sheridan Road in Peoria Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5:00 PM and CIAO First Friday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00. Contact Dana at dana@shearededge.com.

Catharine Littlefield and the Art of Burlesque

Peoria, Illinois burlesque performer Cat Littlefield (Miss Kitty Catscratch) - photo by Craig Stocks

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Wikipedia defines burlesque in part as “a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter…” and that definition certainly applies to Catharine (Cat) Littlefield and her troupe of Lock and Key Burlesque performers. When you watch her perform you’re left wondering who’s having more fun, Cat or her audience.

Cat grew up in Decatur, Illinois and was involved in both visual and performance arts including training in opera performance.  “I’ve been performing since I was 10 years old,” she recalled.  “Performance is in my blood.  My mom is a singer but my dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”  She transferred to Millikin University in Decatur at the start of her sophomore year to major in music but discovered she’d have to be in choral music, “And I hate choral music!” she explained. With her love of visual art and experience with photography in high school she switched her major to studio art with a basis in photography.

After college she began promoting her photography by  attending car shows and taking photos of the cars for the exhibitors. Along the way she struck up a friendship with a gal who had some background in burlesque. “It started out as a way to get out of my parents house and find something fun to do,” she said.  “We had an exercise tape of burlesque routines and it snowballed from there.”

They evolved from “being in someone’s living room and pushing all the furniture aside” to performing at a local bar.  Cat began performing under the stage name of “Kitty Catscratch – Always Classy, Never Trashy” and became completely hooked on the burlesque performance experience. “Anybody who gets up and stage and says they don’t get a rush from the audience response must be dead,” she said.

Modern burlesque also includes the art of striptease. “Burlesque is the origin of stripping, so I can’t say I’m not a stripper,” Cat explained, “but I’m not a stripper.  I’m not working for dollar bill tips and I’m not getting close to my audience.  We don’t do it for the pay because we don’t make a whole lot of money.  We do it for the thrill. I’ve done shows where  I don’t take anything off and I’ve done shows where I get down to the pasties and G-string – which as far as it ever goes. Even the men wear pasties in burlesque.”

Transitioning from opera and dancing in a friend’s living room to doing a burlesque musical routine on stage isn’t easy.  “It was horrifying the first time I did a show,” she said. “At that point I hadn’t told my parents but my brother and cousin came.  I think I forgot the lyrics a couple of times. It was interesting to say the least!”

Unlike most stage performances, burlesque encourages audience enthusiasm and shouting encouragement to the performers is part of the experience. Cat loves the feedback and frequently improvises during solo performances as she plays to the audience. She explained that there’s a saying among burlesque performers, “If you ever hear your bra hit the floor then you’re doing something wrong. As long as you can hear the audience you can improvise and play to it.”

After a couple years performing in Decatur and elsewhere people moved away and the original group dissolved. Eventually Cat found herself married and living in the Peoria area.  She was doing burlesque parties and that led to teaching burlesque classes at California Style Fitness. Last year she put out open call auditions for “Lock and Key Burlesque” and organized a troupe locally. The troupe has been successfully performing locally and is now planning auditions for the 2016-2017 season.

“I’m chasing burlesque,” she said. “It has something I want. My Grandma was classic old style with red lipstick and I think looking back at all those photos captured my imagination at a young age. Here in Peoria it’s chasing history too.  Sally Rand, who is the most famous fan dancer, performed at the Majestic Theatre in 1953. All these amazing acts came through Peoria and nobody knows about it so I’m trying to promote that too.”

You can learn more about “Lock and Key Burlesque” as well as their upcoming open auditions on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lockandkeyburlesque.  You can learn more about Cat’s burlesque classes and burlesque parties at www.castylefitnessstudio.com.

Peoria Artist Carrie Pearce Finds Inspiration in her Latest Painting

Peoria, Illinois artist Carrie Pearce in her studio working on a portrait of artist Frida Kahlo

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

It’s normal for artists to put something of themselves into their work. But when Peoria artist Carrie Pearce began working on her portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, she not only found inspiration, she also found that they had quite a bit in common.

Carrie grew up in the Peoria area, but went to Georgia to attend the Savannah School of Art and Design. She finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in just three years and decided to stay in Savannah. During the next nine years she had a successful studio in City Market where she met her husband, wood artist James Pearce.  After riding out one too many hurricanes, they decided to move back to Peoria.

Oil paints on board are Carrie’s medium of choice, but that was not always the case. While in Savannah she worked primarily in watercolors to create floral and garden images that were popular with tourists. She occasionally used acrylics and had begun experimenting with oils, but didn’t make the transition until more recently.

“You can do more with oil; you can create more atmosphere,” she explained. “Watercolors go much faster, but you have to lay it all out and reserve your whites ahead of time. It’s been a hard transition in that sense. In watercolors, you always look for the lights but with oils you look for the darks.”

Carrie’s choice to paint on board rather than canvas is both technical and artistic. “I don’t like the texture of canvas – it gets in the way, especially if you’re trying to do fine details. If you have a flexible surface like canvas, the paints can chip or crack.”

When I visited Carrie’s studio, she was working on “Frida,” a portrait of the well known Mexican artist.  “I’ve been wanting to do this,” she said. “I started it a year ago when CIAO [the Central Illinois Artist Organization] was doing an art show featuring ‘women who inspired you.’  It’s always been in my head, and I have so much in common with my subject matter.”

(Frida Kahlo originally hoped to be a doctor, but suffered severe injuries from a bus accident when she was 18 years old which left her in a body cast for months, and in pain for the rest of her life. She began painting as a pastime while recovering and eventually became one of the best known female artists and clothing designers in the world. Many of her paintings were self portraits done in rich vibrant colors.  She was married to Mexican artist Diego Rivera.)

One of Carrie’s first decisions was to find a source photograph for the portrait. Her choice was to use a photo that was taken just before the bus accident.  “I didn’t want a famous photo that you’ve seen before,” Carrie said.

The background of the portrait is a mixture of flowers, fruits, toys and animals. “Frida painted a lot of fruits and flowers, so that became the natural background.”  Carrie laughed and said, “And then, I have to have my toys.  She should have toys.” The sugar skulls provide a nod to Frida’s Mexican heritage. Frida also loved animals, so it’s fitting that there’s a monkey perched on her shoulder, but Carrie felt the monkey should have a toy rocking horse gripped in the tip of its tail.

When you look at the painting overall, you’ll see numerous implied lines that cross and intersect, both diagonally and orthogonally. The effect is to focus your attention on Frida. “That was the hard part about laying it out,” Carrie explained. “When I’m drawing it out in black and white, I have to imagine how it will look in color.  It’s all imaginary realism where I’m just making stuff up as I go.  I’m trying to imagine what color is going to be placed where. On this piece, I just started painting in color without drawing it out first.  I get impatient – I just want to paint!”

Carrie has been putting a lot of herself into the painting. “It’s a labor of love,” she said.  “I’ve been working on this for three weeks, and some of those were 12-hours days. Then I go home and dream about it.   I’ll know it’s done when I can look at it and think it can’t get any better. Once it’s done, it’s done and I’ll begin to obsess over the next work, and I won’t think back about it again.”

When “Frida” is finished, Carrie has a clear vision for the frame as well. “The frame will be made from thousands of metal bottle caps – so it’s going to be even more over-the-top.  It’s already busy, so why not just go all the way.”  The frame, as always, will be custom built by husband James.

You can find more information about Carrie and her other works at carriepearce.com. You can meet Carrie and see her work in person at The Atelier, 1000 S.W. Adams St. in Peoria during CIAO First Friday Studio Tours.

Peoria Sculptor Cyndi Merrill Found her Inspiration in the Water

Peoria, Illinois sculptor Cyndi Merrill

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Peoria sculptor Cyndi Merrill always loved creating art but she assumed that she’d be involved in engineering of some sort. That all changed when she took a design class at Illinois Central College, and that experience set her on a path for a bachelor of fine arts degree from Illinois State University.

Cyndi is a native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin but landed in Peoria when her husband’s last military post was at the Navy Marine Corps Duty Station. “We like the area and the city is just the right size,” she said.  “It’s not so large that it’s scary and it’s not so small that you can’t find what you want.”

Cyndi remembers loving to sculpt her whole life. “I made forts as a child, but then made mud doll sculptures or carved faces into apples.  I’ve always been a 3-D artist, but I can’t draw for anything. I can think better in all three dimensions.”

Her breakthrough piece came during her design class at ICC. For a covered object assignment, she created a sperm bank by covering a piggy bank with hundreds of tiny hand-made sperm. “It was fun and conceptual,” she said, “and I got it into the collegiate art competition for two-year schools. That was kind of a big deal since I was the first person from ICC to get into the competition.” With that validation, she turned her focus from engineering to art. Her BFA is in fine art ceramics and she has a second degree in studio arts.

One of Cyndi’s recent works is “Miss Sugar Pink Liquor Lips” (pictured above) which was created in 2013 during Cyndi’s senior year at ISU.  “It was hard being my age and being in college with all these 19 year old fetuses,” she laughed. “I noticed that the girls in college were all wearing UGG boots and yoga pants, and they looked ridiculous.  I was kind of making fun of them, but I remember myself at 19 and it was kind of funny.”

Cyndi specifically chose the figure’s pose and the boots to help convey her message.  “The girl is so brazen that she’s not wearing the yoga pants,” Cyndi explained, “but she still has just enough modesty that she has a tentacle in front. She was trying to conform, but she went overboard. She’s wearing pink UGGs instead of tan, and she’s throwing off the yoga pants and saying, “Fine, look at it.”  It’s really bipolar.”

The octopus portion of the figure is a recurring theme in much of Cyndi’s work. Cyndi suffers from nerve damage, possibly caused by Lyme disease. “I choose the octopus while I was doing water therapy,” she explained. “It’s something that feels as free and awesome as I do when I get into the water. The octopus doesn’t have the restriction of bone and sinew to keep it from moving, so it has the ultimate freedom of movement. Then, I combine it with a sublime body (sublime meaning “perfected body”) as the idealized female form combined with the idealized figure of free movement.

“I put them together so that you have the desire to look, but we’re puzzled to make a connection,” she continued. “The connection is important to understand; you may start to wonder what it is that makes you want to look.

“The position of the octopus is showing emotion.  The girl doesn’t realize that she’s undergoing octopussification, and she’s just now realizing it. The girl is now a woman who knows, but she doesn’t have the whole story yet. You’re never happy to find out that people are paying attention to you not for the reasons you thought, but.eventually you work it to your own advantage.”

Cyndi explained that octopussification represents the shock that people aren’t seeing her the way she thought she was. “It’s a metaphor for the day I was handed the handicap placard and it said “permanent” or the first time I threw my back out and the doctor saying “this is going to happen more.””

“Miss Sugar Pink Liquor Lips” is ceramic with guilder’s paste as a surface treatment to give it the look of bronze. “For me, the process starts out when I grab a ball of clay,” Cyndi said. “With her, I started with the torso and had a lot of clay in the middle, so I folded her and in that bend I could see that she was going to be seated. I was trying to think of something bold and brazen so I went with the particular pose that she’s in. I sculpted her from there using reference photos.”

“When you look at it, be happy and lustful and whimsical,” Cyndi concluded.  “Appreciate the work, appreciate the skill and appreciate the humor. Humor is fuel for me.  I prefer to live a happy life and not a contemplative and dark life.”

You can find more information about Cyndi and her other works at thecrabbyrabbit.com. You can meet Cyndi in person and see her work in person at The Atelier, 1000 S.W. Adams St. in Peoria during most of the CIAO First Friday Studio Tours. However, this Friday, November 7, 2014, she’ll be part of the “Peoria After Dark” exhibit at Studios on Sheridan in Peoria.

Playing Peoria is on Hiatus

Montage of all Playing Peoria artists and entertainers

I’m sorry to say that I will no longer be able to continue making regular posts on “Playing Peoria.” I’ve truly enjoyed meeting each and every one of the artists and performers who have shared their art with us.

The Playing Peoria website will continue to be available online, and I do hope to make periodic posts in the future. Click on the “Follow Playing Peoria” button to receive an email notification of any future posts.

You can also learn more about me and my photography on my website, www.craigstocksarts.com, and visit my personal photography blog at www.craigstocksarts.com/blog.

I specialize in medium and large prints of my landscape and fine art photography. Prints are available through a number of local outlets, including Studios on Sheridan, Studio 825, the Joseph Works Art Gallery, The Main Statement, and the Traffik Jam, as well as directly from me. Local artwork is the perfect way to decorate your home, office or restaurant.

Thanks again to all of the artists who have participated in Playing Peoria. I also want thank the people who have helped me produce and promote Playing Peoria.

Debbie Stocks, my wife, proofreader and occasional co-author
Wini Stocks, my mother, proofreader
Suzette Boulais, Executive Director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois
Nancy Davis, photography assistant
Amanda Stoll, writer
Molly Richmond, writer and photography assistant
Carol Davidson, photography assistant
Jayme Eng, writer and photography assistant

Britni Ulrich finds Freedom through Art

Abstract artist Britni Ulrich

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Peoria artist and Bradley University fine art student Britni Ulrich came to Bradley to learn about art. In the process, she began to explore dichotomies, and learned a lot about herself.

Britni grew up in the Chicago area. She always loved art.  She recalled the time when her parents remodeled the basement and she turned one wall into her own art project. “I added sayings, trees, whatever I felt like. They’ve left it there to this day.”

After high school, she was attracted to Bradley because of their art program.   “They have a great painting program and I like how it’s intimate. I knew I’d get a great education and they’d push me to the right level I needed to be.” Though she originally considered pre-med, she decided that art was too important to her. That prompted her to switch to art education, but eventually her professors convinced her to apply to the BFA program.

Britni is focused on abstract painting, but she comes from a more realistic background. “Abstract is something that evolved,” she explained.  “My early work was mostly representational. I did a lot of figure drawing. Once I got into my more advanced classes, I started to really love paint.”

Near the end of her junior year, she undertook a project doing dichotomy paintings where each pair of paintings illustrated either the sacred or the profane. “Those are abstract ideas, and it was the first time I had painted in an abstract way,” she said. “I feel like it opened up this whole new world for me.  Once I did those paintings, I haven’t painted anything realistic since then.”

“Our acknowledgement of everything in life is defined by the idea of dichotomies,” she said.  “We wouldn’t know what light is without darkness, we would not know what pain is without love.  It applies to virtually everything.  I think that all of life is encompassed by opposition.  I try to represent that with the way I paint.”

Her paintings evolve as she works on them, and sometimes the process creates a happy surprise. “I build the canvas, so I know the size. I typically start with a color pallet in mind, but I may change my mind.  Acrylics dry darker, so my colors may change.  Sometimes I’ll come back to a painting and the acrylics will have mixed together to create a whole new color, so now that’s a color I have to integrate.”

Britni likes to push the limits of acrylics and oils.  “I start in acrylic; then, I go back over with oil. Acrylic allows things to happen very quickly and allows for some really interesting marks to be made. And, oil does a lot of interesting things that acrylic can’t do.  I really enjoy working with both.”

“I think that paint on its own can be so beautiful, even without my hand – just the fluidity of the paint. It’s really important to me that there are organic shapes in my work, and that I contrast them with grids and straight lines.”

“I’ve used everything under the sun to work the paint,” she continued. “I’ve used tape, paint brushes, pallet knives, anything you can think of.  I’ll put gloves on and push paint around with my hands. Sometimes I’ll use water and push the paint around with water. I try not to use brushes until the very end. Beautiful things happen without the acknowledgement that they’re going to happen, but you have to have a creative eye to catch it and stop it before it goes too far and turns into nothing.”

Every painting is different. “Some paintings I can finish in two or three sessions.  Sometimes I have a yelling conversation with my work and we get into a fight. But, I always push it until I feel like it’s completed. Sometimes that involves a lot of layers of oil, and sometimes it happens on the first try.”

“It’s horrible if I don’t paint anything for more than a week – I feel more stressed out, I feel like I’m suffocating.  As an artist, I love to be free and without constraints. When I’m at home, I’m really OCD, organized and clean. But when I’m here, my painting isn’t like that. My paintings are my freedom. They’re my way of tackling the world around me.”

For more information, visit Britni’s website at www.britniulrich.com.