About Craig

I have a passion to create, and I'm fascinated with the tools and technologies of creativity. My process is to interpret the scene through a combination of camera position, light and post-processing to present my unique vision and share the emotion I feel.

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.

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 www.pearcepearce.com 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 suzuki@pekin.net 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.

William Butler Always Knew He’d be an Artist

William Butler, Peoria, Illinois artist at Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Center

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Tracey Frugoli

From the beginning, William Butler, Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria knew he was going to be an artist.

William grew up in Bartonville, Illinois and even at the young age of six he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I told my dad, ‘I want to be an artist.’” His family wasn’t surprised since William and several friends would draw whenever they had the chance, especially during the summer.

His dad had once told him that he should be a commercial artist “which I had no idea what that was because I was only six,” William said with a laugh. During college he attended Illinois Central College to study Illustrating and Graphic Design before going to Northern Illinois University. After graduating in 1986, William worked in Chicago for eight years as a graphic designer and illustrator.

In 1994, William came to Peoria. When he began looking for a studio space, he found one he could rent at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1996. During that time, the group was just starting out and wasn’t always well organized to handle some of the routine tasks. “I noticed the trash wasn’t being taken out,” he recalled.

The director at the time had offered him lower rent in return for mundane tasks he performed throughout the Center, and eventually the work offset nearly all of the rent. “Pretty soon I became the man who knew too much,” he laughed. Today, William is in his tenth year as Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria.

One of his biggest challenges is finding time for both work and art. “Usually artists need to have another job besides their art and it’s difficult to learn how to balance both.” And, according to William, a serious artist has to leave some things out to be an artist. “You almost have to hone life to fit art and sometimes you regret the things you leave out to make art work.”

William describes art as a “compulsion, something I have to do,” and he believes that it definitely can have its ups and downs, such as finding his own personal style. During his time in Chicago, he painted watercolors emulating the style of Andrew Wyeth and sold his watercolors at art fairs throughout the Midwest. From there, he did hand-painted linoleum relief prints. “I focused on heavy line work and a flat type of art”

Today, William says he has strayed from this very flat style. “Now my works have some shading in them. They still have a lot of line work, but they’re becoming more three-dimensional.” For influences, William used to look at comic book art as a child and Andrew Wyeth heavily as he got older, but now he also uses influences from Elizabeth Murray with her flat and colorful style. “She has influenced me to work on multiple pieces that link together.”

William doesn’t want to merely copy the artists however, and is currently trying to avoid looking at a lot of artists. “It’s very hard to look at someone’s artwork that you like and try to make it your own.” To help him with this, William looks at the aspects of the art that he likes. “I try to think, why do I like this piece? And when I find it, I try to emulate what I liked and not the artist’s work itself.

William mostly uses acrylics, a medium he says is very convenient because of its fast drying capabilities when comparing to other paint, such as oils. While remaining predominantly with acrylics, William has also experimented with all different sorts of mediums, such as watercolors and oil paint.

While it’s not hard for influences to come his way, William has a unique method of completing his art. When asked how long each piece typically takes, he responded, “I honestly don’t know. I like to work on multiple things at once, each at different stages of completion so I don’t pay attention to how long it takes.” According to William, he dislikes being in a position where he has completed something and not having anything to work on still, so he tends to avoid that by having multiple pieces at once.

Like previously, William still participates in galleries, around two or three galleries a year. In the fall, William and another artist, John Selburg, will be showing their work in Galesburg Civic Art Center this fall.

For more information about William Butler, visit his website at www.williambutlerartist.com and his profile page at www.peoriacac.org. For more information about the Contemporary Art Center, visit www.peoriacac.org.

Jay Goldberg Loves the Business of Music and Entertainment

Jay Goldberg, President of Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment in Peoria, Illinois

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

For Jay Goldberg, it’s not only about the band, the crowd, or the show that makes his business, Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment so worthwhile. To him, he’s got a keen interest in the backstage, what goes on behind the scenes to make the now widely popular concerts keep going.

Jay Goldberg got into music during college. After he graduated, he opened a record store in Peoria. He built the record store into a chain of 38 stores throughout the Midwest before selling it in order to pursue a career with promoting concerts. “I realized that a great draw for the records stores would be if they were ticket outlets.” According to Jay, there weren’t a lot of concerts in the early 1970’s. “In order for me to do the ticket sales I decided to also get into promoting concerts.”

From there, with the retail record store and concert promoting, Jay created Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment. As time went on, Jay and his business expanded from promoting concerts in Peoria to all over Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Missouri and beyond. By the end of 1981, Jay had sold his record stores and focused solely on promoting concerts, festivals, and special events.

“We do a number of things,” says Jay when asked what his business entails. “We formed a company called IndiGOLD Artist Management in 2008, which manages a singer/songwriter.” Not only is Jay in artist management, but also has an event and security company that provides “services for other events for their security and emergency service needs.”

Jay likes to refer to one of his business specialties as “primitive festival location productions,” which promotes large scale festivals around Peoria. “We do things such as the Summer Music Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois and Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Festival with Mumford & Sons in Troy, Ohio and Guthrie, Oklahoma, but we also do all types of events.” These events include an international beer tasting festival, a motorcycle rally weekend, a blues festival called  Budweiser Illinois Blues Festival and even promoted Broadway shows.

With promoting so many different types of events, it’s no surprise that Jay and his business remain fairly busy. Jay and his team are always searching for new events but people also approach him. “We receive a lot of inquiries about events,” and being in the business for quite a while has let Jay create a large network. “If we hear about a band or artist going on tour we’ll usually be contacted to see if we’re available in our locations.”

Jay also gets involved with developing artists, promoting small events such as nightclubs to large venues. “We own the Canopy Club in Champaign, Illinois and we can showcase a lot of up and coming artists and help them as they gain more attention.” Jay is also not restricted to only American artists. “We’re very international.” Jay and his business are currently promoting events in Buenos Aires, Argentina, though he says his “largest footprint” is in the United States.

Promoting artists can also be tricky, according to Jay. “The most difficult thing for me is gauging whether or not tickets will sell.” And emerging artists can be especially difficult. Larger bands are much easier to sell out tickets. “You know the Rolling Stones are going to sell.” With emerging artists, questions such as ‘will it sell?’ or ‘is there a market for it?’ are inquiries Jay and his business must evaluate before investing in certain artists. “It’s hard to target your market, especially now as so many stations are out there with satellite radio.”

To get a good idea of marketing, Jay works very closely with radio and television stations. “We work a lot with radio stations for promotional purposes of artists.” Locally, Jay says that the music radio scene is staying close to classical rock but one radio station is “much more aggressive in playing independent music and unknown artists and we’re really excited about that.”

For more information about up and coming events sponsored by Jay Goldberg, visit his website at http://jaytv.com/. For more information about IndieGOLD Artist Management, email Jay at jay@indigoldmanagement.com or Ian Goldberg at ian@jaytv.com.

Liz Barnes “Ear in the Envelope” Serves Customers World Wide

Peoria, Illinois artist and business owner Liz Barnes at the "Ear in the Envelope"

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

Liz  Barnes, owner and founder of Ear in the Envelope in downtown Peoria, sells a unique product – food safe aluminum art materials.

Liz graduated from Illinois State University with a Metals and Glassblowing major. “I love the sculptural aspects of art,” she said.  After college she began to teach art classes at private schools around Illinois. She discovered a business opportunity while teaching a handicapped student. “He could use one arm just fine, but it was a little bit more difficult to use the other one.”

Liz started looking around for something that her student could do without much strain or worry about using both arms. “And that’s how I found metal stamping.” But, Liz wanted to stay away from sterling silver because it was so expensive, so she looked for another metal that was more affordable. “I went on the internet and began searching for different metals. I found copper, but then I also found aluminum.” The quality of the aluminum that Liz found wasn’t suitable so she began asking around different aluminum companies to order some higher quality metal.

The companies thought she was going to make jewelry so many of them didn’t think that she would need as much as she wanted and as a result wouldn’t respond to her requests. So, Liz called again but this time she said she was “Joe’s Sculptural Fountains,” which she believed that a sculptor needing a lot more than a 5”x5” square of aluminum would be more convincing. “I didn’t believe I would be ordering truckloads of it then like I am now.” When they would call back, she would answer: “Yes this is Joe’s wife, I know what he’s looking for,” Liz said with a laugh.

As her business began to grow, Liz found it more and more difficult to produce all the different products that people wanted. At first we tried to keep everybody happy,” Liz said, “but we found that we were almost always overloaded so we had to change.” To keep most of the customers happy, Liz and her business began selling only the most popular products on Etsy.

Currently, Liz and her business are also working with other companies who are good at punching out different shapes such as hearts in the metal. “We send our food safe aluminum out to them and they punch it for us.” She also credits a lot of the work in her business to her employees. “We have such a great team, they really have a good eye for improving.”

Liz doesn’t have any immediate plans to expand her business, but she’s confident in her team’s abilities. “I think if I did decide to get bigger I would have such a great team to help me,” she said. “All my employees are very dedicated and work very hard to do well. I don’t want to be the McDonald’s of the metals field.”

Despite being a smaller business, Ear in the Envelope is growing and adding new customers. “We sell internationally as well as around the United States,” Liz said. The business sells to countries such as Australia, Ireland, UK, Sweden, and Switzerland. Surprisingly, however, Liz does not get a lot of business locally. “Most of our products are sent out of state, California and Oregon being our largest consumers in the United States, and there are other pockets around the country as well.”

Liz is also offering metal stamping classes in the fall at Ear in the Envelope. She also teaches a class with (special metal clay) [link], a clay made out of powdered silver or bronze.

For more information about events at the Ear in the Envelope, visit their Facebook page. You can view and purchase Ear in the Envelope’s products on their Etsy page at www.etsy.com/shop/gottagettadeal.


Mike Guymon Plays with Fire

Peoria, Illinois object manipulation performer Mike Guymon

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

Not many people can say that they’ve played with fire and didn’t get burned, but object manipulation performer Mike Guymon can say just that.

Mike, a massage therapist, was brought into the art of object manipulation by one of his friends. “My friend, Joe, picked it up at a yoga retreat that he went to,” Mike explained.  “I immediately fell in love with it.  I went from having a slight introduction to it to where I would come home from work at 11:00 at night and practice until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.” Mike continued to practice four or five times a week, usually before or after work.

As he worked with poi, Mike began learning about other forms of object manipulation, such as hooping, contact juggling, fire breathing, and so on. They are all different styles under the same umbrella genre of object manipulation.

Mike continued expanding his skills by going to different retreats throughout the country. They go on for several days, starting early in the morning and continue all day, or for as long as their supplies last. “Around 10:00 we’ll bring out the fire equipment and we’ll just keep going,” Mike said. “We can go until anywhere from midnight to 5:00 in the morning.”

The retreats and festivals aren’t what you would usually expect. “They’re definitely catered to people who are interested in object manipulation and learning more.” So while the retreats are not just a show for people, there are always demonstrations and performances going on. Along with performances, the retreats have workshops with guest instructors who teach from their areas of expertise.

Mike himself has taught at a few of the retreats. This past year Mike taught at Fire Drums, an event that brings artists from around the world to perform using different methods of fire performance.

Hundreds of people gather at retreats all across the country, but despite its popularity, it remains mostly hidden. “It’s very much an underground community,” Mike commented on the lack of knowledge about object manipulation. “I could name several very prominent people who have brought it to certain places, or are masters of it, and no one outside of the group will recognize their names.”

Despite this, Mike has made connections all over, including people in California, Missouri, Kansas, and many east coast states. When asked about his own gathering here in Peoria, Lux Orbis and Heart of Illinois Hoopers, Mike said, “We have around 50 people. We started with about 10 to 15 people and it’s definitely been growing.” The Heart of Illinois Hoopers’ Facebook page has members from Peoria, but also from all over the country.

“Facebook is the best way for everyone to keep in touch, rather than texting all the time.” Mike and his group have friends in Bloomington, St. Louis, and Champaign to name a few, and will all stay connected to see events happening around their areas. “If we see something going on with our friends in Bloomington, we’ll go over and perform there and our friends in Bloomington do the same for us.”

The most difficult thing Mike has found so far in his career with object manipulation is recruitment. Mike and his group will practice regularly in public at parks and this is where he gets to meet some new people with an interest in object manipulation. “A lot of times we’ll be practicing and afterwards, people will come up to me and ask about it.”

But it’s not just making connections within the groups that are difficult in recruitment. “It’s really difficult to get people to start working with fire. It’s very beautiful and amazing to watch but it is also a lot more dangerous.” Like most people using fire, Mike makes sure to take all the necessary precautions when performing and practicing, but even then there are some mishaps. “People in this type of art know that if you mess up with a hoop it’s no big deal, but with fire it’s not so forgiving.”

Like all of the performance arts, fire manipulation takes a lot of time and effort to reach a high level of skill. But Mike absolutely loves fire manipulation, and the reward of the results is worth the effort.

For more information about Mike Guymon and his group Lux Orbis, visit their blog at luxorbis.wordpress.com or their Facebook page. For more information about the Heart of Illinois Hoopers, visit their facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/hoi.hoopers.