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 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 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,, and visit my personal photography blog at

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

James Pearce Creates Art with Wood

Peoria, Illinois wood artist James Pearce

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

Everyone is familiar with spinning plastic chairs seen in offices; the ones that provide endless fun for children when parents need a five minute break. But what about a spinning chair or a table that is made completely out of wood? James Pearce, a woodworker, has created just that with woodscrews.

James is a “fourth generation woodworker” from Sierra Vista, Arizona and has been around woodworking for as long as he can remember. “I have a lot of great memories with my dad, grandfather, and me woodworking.” James didn’t attend college but joined the military instead where he worked with diesel engines. “I’m the type of person who likes to learn by doing rather than have someone tell me how to do something.” James met his wife, painter Carrie Pearce, in Georgia after he left the military. “She got homesick,” he said with a laugh, “so we came to Peoria, which is a great city.”

Through his long relationship with woodworking, James has always had an interest in art. “I find it very interesting and I’ve done a lot of it myself. It’s always been around.” Growing up around art, James has “in some way shape or form appreciated it or practiced it.” He believes art is a very complex skill that can’t be taught to everyone. “You can’t teach someone to make something aesthetically pleasing. You work at it, you study it, and you improve on it.”

James’ interest in acting out his ideas led him to create his woodscrews. “My wife and I were doing a show around Halloween and I wanted to create something that fit the theme, but moved in some way.” James thought of a large-scale wood screw and began trying to produce it. As a result, James came up with the appropriately named Spider Table, with its eight “legs” and darkened exterior. The table is made completely out of wood, including the large screw that allows the tabletop to rise or lower.

Visually the woodscrew is not a difficult thing to understand, according to James, but the process of making it is certainly a constant learning experience for him. “It may as well be magic; it’s difficult to explain.” James has gone through several woodscrews since the creation of his first one, constantly working with it to produce the pieces he wants.

James is interested in how he can modify the wood he is working with such as creating intricate curves. “I like figuring out how to make wood do something other than what people are used to seeing.” One table piece he created seemed to be made out of metal at first glance with its dark exterior and curving shapes. “To me it’s challenging to get the curves, dimensions, and the look of the piece correctly.” To James, the curves and textures in his work emulate a more organic style rather than having sharp and straight angles.

When he starts working on a new idea, James modifies his pieces as they are created rather than making detailed plans. “They can be designed down to the last moment, so I don’t typically sketch out my ideas.” His ideas are well thought out though, going over every detail from the wood and texture to how it moves. “It’s easier to erase a previous thought and go with a new one than to make a new sketch.”

James sells almost every piece he create and most of his products go pretty quickly. James is flexible when creating pieces for specific clients. “I will sit down with the client and figure out what they want. Some have very specific ideas and others will have seen work that I have done previously and want something similar.”

“I really look forward to the end product, but I wish I had more time with them sometimes before they’re shipped off,” he said. “I know they function, but I enjoy seeing how everything works after I have finished.”

For more information, vist James’ website at and see his artist profile page on the Central Illinois Artists Organization (CIAO).

Violinist Leslie Koons

Pekin, Illinois violinist and Suzuki Strings instructor Leslie Koons

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Leslie Koons defines herself as a violinist and a teacher.  But to dozens of families in Pekin, Illinois, she’s one of the School District 108 Suzuki Strings teachers who helped develop their child’s love of music.

Leslie is originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which is also the home of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. For her, music was never an option. Her mother was a music teacher, organist and choir director, and her grandparents were musical as well. She can’t remember ever falling in love with music. “That’s like asking me when I fell in love with breathing,” she said. “Music has just always been a part of me. My mother had me playing the piano at three.”

Her mother discovered early that Leslie had perfect pitch. Her mother would work with her at the piano by challenging her to name the notes she heard. “Of course, she’d show me off when we had company,” she recalled laughing. “Look what little Leslie can do!”

Leslie never questioned that she’d find a career in music, the only question was whether to study performance or education. Her studies took her to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for a bachelor’s in music performance, and then to Tulane University in New Orleans for a master’s degree, also in violin performance. Eventually, she landed in Sarasota, Florida where she met her husband, Lowell, at an orchestra audition. (They both got hired, by the way.)

Leslie had first heard of the Suzuki method from her violin professor in college, and it sounded like a good approach. Given her background in violin performance and Lowell’s background in violin music education, it was only natural for them to begin applying these techniques with their own children. They began taking the kids to Suzuki workshops to expand their skills. Most of those workshops also offered training for teachers which she and Lowell would attend.

Eventually, they decided to jump in with both feet and moved to Indiana to study the Suzuki method more formally. They then came to Pekin when Lowell was hired by the Pekin Suzuki Strings program. Initially, Leslie would help out as an accompanist. “I don’t think they even knew I played the violin too,” she said. Both auditioned and joined the Peoria Symphony Orchestra.

According to Leslie, very few schools have a Suzuki string program like Pekin’s where children can start in kindergarten. “A lot of schools use the Suzuki literature, and may even call themselves a Suzuki program, but they’re not really using the Suzuki method.” The Suzuki method relies heavily on parental involvement to be role models and provide positive reinforcement. It’s sometimes called the “mother tongue method” since the learning is modeled after the way children learn to speak their native language.

Leslie is a big believer in the Suzuki method. One of the strengths of the approach is “the fact that they can do it so young,” she said.  “There’s so much brain developing that can happen at that young age – to do the violin and to do all the things that are involved in the process. It’s just fabulous for kids. They develop listening skills as well as coordination and self discipline. The kids also get a lot of individual attention, so they can progress at their own pace. We use repetition and a lot of positive encouragement.”

Self confidence is another huge benefit. “As students get older they can become very self conscious,” Leslie pointed out. “But for the Suzuki kids, getting out on stage isn’t a big deal since they’ve been doing it since they were five.  They also have a relationship that they build with their parents – that’s a special time they don’t get any other way.”

As a teacher, some of Leslie’s most rewarding moments come from small victories. “When you get a three or four year old who can focus for 5 minutes, that’s major,” she pointed out.  “Any time you have a student who is one of the fidgety, difficult to focus kids, and you get to the point where they can play Twinkle all the way through – that is just the most exciting thing in the world.”

Leslie gets a lot of satisfaction from teaching, but she still loves to play and perform. “Probably the most fun is quartet playing,” she said, “because of the collaborative aspect of it.” And, she doesn’t need an audience, she can be just as happy playing in her living room as she is on stage. “Frequently we have people over to play, just for fun.”

For more information about the Pekin Suzuki Strings program, email or call (309) 477-4774.

Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, my family has been involved with the Pekin Suzuki program for many years.  We leaned about the program when they visited my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. She was fascinated with the violins and wanted to sign up. A few years later, our son also joined the program. We loved being “Suzuki parents.”

Today (quite a few years later), my daughter’s three sons are all in the program, playing violin, viola and cello. They may never be great musicians, but that’s not the goal. They’re all great kids, and I firmly believe that music education contributes to their success.

Peoria Artist Jean Gronewold Combines Teaching and Art

Peoria, Illinois artist and teacher Jean Gronewold

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Some artists have the opportunity to spend their entire lives devoted solely to their art while others simply push art into the background as they pursue other careers. But Peoria, Illinois artist Jean Gronewold found ways to keep art alive by integrating it into her class material as an elementary school teacher.

Originally from Virginia, art was always special for Jean.  “Art was my escape,” she recalled, “art and reading.  It took me into another, peaceful zone.”  She would have liked to study art at Richmond Professional Institute, but it just wasn’t in the cards. “My mentor was my aunt, who was a teacher,” she said.  “I’d gone with her to the one-room schoolhouse where she taught and I just loved it. My aunt recommended James Madison College (now James Madison University).”

Originally Jean planned to be a secondary school art teacher, but found she didn’t yet have the maturity and confidence to handle the students. “I got out in the schools as a student teacher and the kids just ate me alive,” she said. That experience prompted her to switch from secondary to elementary education with a focus on art.

After graduation, she began teaching in Washington, Illinois. As an elementary school teacher she integrated art as a way of learning, whether it was science, history or math. Other teachers began asking her to help them, so she would switch classrooms to do programs with other students. Soon, she was in the forefront helping to show others how to integrate art into learning.

After 17 years, she was ready to move on, which led her to Eureka College and Illinois State University as a part of their elementary education programs. But, her favorite job came later as the director of the adult literacy program in Pekin, Illinois where she stayed until she retired a few years ago.

During her career in education, she always maintained some form of studio space, but retirement has allowed her to focus on art. Of course, being a teacher at heart, she still teaches, “but I’m finally teaching art – my passion,” she said. “Now that I’m retired, I’m really getting into art and life is good.  But, I love teaching – I absolutely love it.”

Jean’s art has continued to transform too.  Due to asthma, her doctor told her, “No more painting with oils,” so she switched to acrylics to avoid the fumes. “Oh my, it was a blessing,” she said. “I’d never go back to oils. I love acrylics, there are so many things you can do with them.”

Over the last few years she has also begun exploring new genres. In addition to her more traditional landscapes and floral still lives, Jean has been exploring abstracts, which has become her new passion.

Jean describes herself as “always something of a perfectionist,” but abstract art has given her a new freedom. “I always pushed really hard to get A’s. Everything had to be perfect…. except my abstract art. There, I can feel really centered. I go into that zone and life is good.”

Jean’s approach to creating a piece is different as well. “With realistic works, I always sketch first so that I don’t paint myself into a corner. But, with abstract, I might have an idea, or I might not. Something triggers me, like the shape of a vase or something and I think “Oh, that’s a nice shape” and I jump right in with paints. For me, I love the free-flowing paint once I touch the brush to the canvas. I don’t have to think or plan. I feel like I can just let myself go.”

Lately, her exploration of abstracts has led to other experiments as well. She explained, “A few years ago, a fellow artist looked at some of my work and told me, “Don’t be afraid of texture,” and those words keep echoing around in my head. I came back home and I started adding more texture and playing just to see what would happen. I’d have to say I’m an experimental painter.”

Working in abstracts has also affected how she approaches her realistic paintings. Leaves on a sunflower are more stylized where before they would have been more realistic. She’s also experimented with adding texture to realistic paintings, such as creating a texture on the canvas, then painting over the texture.

“These are people pleasers,” she said gesturing to her more traditional paintings, “and I grew up being a people pleaser. My abstract paintings are for me, and if they don’t sell, that’s OK.”

“Who am I painting this for? I’ve eaten my peas, and now I can have my dessert.”

You can see Jean’s work at Exhibit A Gallery in Peoria and at the Galesburg Civic Art Gallery and Gift Shop. Learn more about her classes at Illinois Central College, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offered through Bradley University and through Jean’s own Dragonfly Fine Art Studio.