Peoria Artist Ryan Dowell

Peoria, Illinois artist Ryan Dowell

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Jayme Eng

For some mothers, having an artsy child can be exciting, as long as they keep their artwork on paper or canvas. But Peoria artist Ryan Dowell enjoyed drawing on anything, including walls and sidewalks as well as on paper.

Ryan grew up in London Mills, Illinois where he was excited about art as a child. “My art teacher in grade school was really adamant about art and really helped to manifest my passion for art.” Though Ryan was taught about realism first, he always gravitated to a style that resembled the line-work of his childhood, which he continues to use in his art today.

When he graduated from high school, Ryan first attended Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois before attending Bradley University. There he’s currently working hard on achieving a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus in painting and sculpture. “At first I thought I was going to go into politics,” Ryan said, but art has always been something he enjoyed and realized he could make statements with his art.

By constantly looking at other artists and researching different topics, Ryan uses his own works of art to criticize social issues. “I want to entice my audience through humorous images but also get them thinking about the social issues I’m presenting.” Using humor, according to Ryan, rather than merely stating the social issue creates a different response. “Just saying it would make people sad, so I found that humor was a way to lightheartedly get people interested.”

Ryan also uses mixed media in his art, such as newspaper clippings that pertain to the issue he’s discussing in his art. “I can use acrylics, oil, pastel, and spray paint all on the same surface.” But before he even gets to his canvas, Ryan likes to research to help answer his question, “How do I get to the idea in my head?” Though he never sketches the ideas he has, Ryan likes to have a good idea on how to go about his ideas. He visits galleries in Chicago and St. Louis regularly to look at works by other artists while researching different techniques and ways to improve his own style.

As for influences, Ryan likes to look at street artists from the 80’s as well as classical painters to set up a painting. “I also like to look at Pop Art, but mostly for composition.”

For Ryan, executing his pieces is the most difficult for him, rather than researching. “I have an idea in my head, but my art and research can take me so many different directions.” To help solidify what he’s going to paint, Ryan outlines his work in chalk and adjusts as he continues.

Most of his canvases are also made by himself. “At Bradley, one of my art professors taught me to stretch canvases and I just ran with it.” Ryan also still draws on walls, only this time they aren’t limited to his house as they are in much more public places. “They get painted over a lot, but I’ve been taking photos of them when I realized I could put them in a gallery.” These pieces are also central around social commentary.

Though Ryan’s work isn’t in any galleries at the present, his work was featured in the 2012 Ciao & Friends Opening Art Exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

When asked about his aspirations, Ryan stated that he wanted to go to graduate school to study art education. When asked why, he replied, “I had a lot of great art teachers growing up and I realized that fueled my desire to not only create but to teach art as well.”

For more information, visit Ryan’s website at or visit his Facebook page on Facebook.


Peoria Artist Barb Unes Finds Inspiration Everywhere

Peoria, Illinois artist Barb Unes

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

“I don’t like painting flowers because everyone’s done it,” says Peoria, Illinois artist Barbara Unes. An avid watercolor painter, Barb enjoys branching out from her usual medium of choice and works to create art for herself and what she enjoys.

Barbara Unes is a native of Illinois and grew up in the Chicago area before finally settling back in Peoria in 2003. Barb taught in District 150 before retirement. During that time, she created art and painted. “When I was a child, I was always interested in doing creative things with my hands.” Barb recalls.

She credits most of her growing passion for art throughout her high school and college years to the teachers and professors she had. Barb refers to her professors at Western Illinois University as “inspiring and constantly encouraging creativity.”

What made her go into teaching art came during college as well? “I’m a very nurturing person, and to me teaching is a way of giving back to students as I was with my professors in college.” Barb taught for 27 years as a watercolor teacher before retiring, and continues to teach one or two classes at ICC.

During her teaching career she worked in District 150, which Barb said was “the most personally meaningful teaching experience” in all her 27 years of teaching. At Roosevelt Magnet School, Barb felt that she was truly making a difference teaching art to students. Both teacher and student have to participate when learning, especially art. “The teacher has to love children, and the students have to want to learn,” both of which Barb feels happened at Roosevelt Magnet School.

Barb’s time as a teacher was very fulfilling, but as a result, she didn’t have as much time dedicated to herself. According to Barb, teaching is very time consuming. “I would paint, but only in the summer,” but since her retirement, she has been able to paint throughout the year. She particularly likes to paint when it rains and will go into her basement where her studio is and work on different projects.

Through her love of watercolors, Barb has begun to dabble with other forms of paints such as acrylic paint. She enjoys and loves watercolors very much but finds acrylics a much more pliable paint to work with. “Watercolor is very unforgiving,” Barb says. She has also begun to work in mixed media such as gathering sand from beaches and rubbing it into paint to create a different texture. Barb hopes to start working on large scale and contemporary canvases in the near future as well.

Sand isn’t the only thing Barb has been taking from the places she visits. Most of her paintings come from her mind or from photographs rather than physical arrangements she’s created.  To prepare for a painting, Barb likes to have a plan. “Most of the time, I’ll sketch and do studies on paper to figure out shapes and shadows before I actually paint.”  Even then, Barb says, she sometimes changes the layout as she paints.

When asked what inspires Barb and her paintings, her response was simple, “You can get inspiration from anywhere.” Barb is interested in the shapes and shadows of what’s around her and from the photographs she takes.

For Barb, currently all the artwork she’s making is for her own personal use and she does not participate in galleries and shows very often. She has a few shows under her belt, but they are not essential for making her art. “I’ve done commissions and shows, but I don’t actively seek out the business.” For Barb, her artwork is about “her life, her home, herself,” and she enjoys the leisurely pace she is currently on to experiment in different forms and styles of art.

For more information about Barbara Unes and her artwork, visit

Stephen Heinemann is Passionate about Making Music

Bradley University music professor and jazz musician Stephen Heinemann

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

For some, the idea of making a career of the same thing they’ve been doing since they were a child might sound a little boring, but for Stephen Heinemann, it’s been anything but dull. To Stephen, juggling his job as a professor, composing music, and participating in many different ensembles can be difficult at times, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stephen Heinemann has worked for Bradley University as a music professor for 22 years, starting in 1991, and teaches music theory, composition, and clarinet. Music however, has been with him his whole life.

Stephen grew up with parents who were amateur musicians and encouraged him to pursue music. His sister had taken to the piano, and he the clarinet. “I probably wanted to do something different.” Later, Stephen began to play the alto saxophone when he started listening to jazz music and became inspired. He expanded his musical career by receiving the Bachelor of Music and Master of Arts degrees in composition from San Francisco State University. After teaching for several years in Arizona, Stephen received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition from the University of Washington in Seattle before moving to Peoria to work at Bradley.

Stephen soon began to perform with a multitude of groups that include the Central Illinois Jazz Orchestra, Todd Kelly Quintet, and the Bradley Jazz Ensemble.  Through the Bradley Jazz Ensemble, Stephen has also played at Jazz festivals around Europe such as the Brienz, Tuscany, and Umbria Jazz Festivals. Recently, Stephen also helped create and debut Peoria Lunaire, a five faculty membered performance group. The first faculty permanent performance group at Bradley, Peoria Lunaire performs once a semester, debuting last November.

Not only does he perform, but Stephen also composes music for his ensembles, both classical as well as jazz. Composition, Stephen has said, is one of the most challenging aspects of his career. “It’s not about going over the same territory over and over again,” Stephen comments on the difficulties of composition in his opinion, “but redefining it.”

According to Stephen, the time it takes to compose music varies from each piece and every one is different. When referring to a recent jazz piece Stephen composed, it took him around two hours to complete it, but with others it can take months. With the longer compositions, Stephen likes to set up a general deadline not to settle, but to make sure he doesn’t overwork his pieces. “When you have a lot of time, it’s easy to keep going over the composition again and again to get it perfect.” Stephen gets his influences from many different forms of classical and jazz music.

When comparing the two, Stephen says that composing classical and jazz music are as expected, different. According to Stephen, orchestral and chamber performances strive toward an “idealized perfection of sound” while jazz is a little bit more lenient when it comes to the barriers of defined principles and the value of the “happy accident.” Despite their differences, both styles also share commonalities. “Both areas require enormous practice, discipline, and dedication” and Stephen enjoys both and the artistic freedom he has been able to pursue.

The Central Illinois Jazz Orchestra plays every first Wednesday of the month at the Fieldhouse. For more information about Stephen Heinemann, visit Also visit for upcoming concerts performed by the Central Illinois Jazz Orchestra as well as Todd Kelly Quintet. For more information about Peoria Lunaire, contact Stephen at (309) 677-2603.

Jonathan Wright’s Interests Keep Him Busy

Peoria, Illinois writer and musician Jonathan Wright

By Jayme Eng / Photography by Craig Stocks

If you asked Jonathan Wright what his favorite pastime was, he couldn’t give you just one. By day, he loves being the managing editor for Peoria Magazines, but he never lost his fascination with the computer technology he mastered in his first career.  Add “avid musician” to his list of passions and you can see why it’s a challenge to find time for everything.

A native to central Illinois, Jonathan studied at Bradley University and received his degree in business management with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. In January of 1999, Jonathan moved to Denver, Colorado and received his certificate in Information Systems Programming at Denver Technical College. Jonathan moved back to Illinois in 2005 and worked in Bloomington as a computer programmer at Integrity Technology Solutions.

In 2006, Jonathan became the Managing Editor of Peoria Magazines after the previous editor left. Peoria Magazines  was founded in 1989 by Jonathan’s father, the late David Wright. Jonathan’s mother, Jan Wright, asked him to fill the position of Managing Editor because he not only has a strong knowledge of programming, but also has an English background.

Peoria Magazines publishes three magazines; “InterBusiness Issues,” “Art & Society,” and “Peoria Progress” which are distributed monthly, every other month, and twice a year respectively. Jonathan assists with editing, design, photography and writes articles as well as taking care of web design.

For Jonathan, magazines are different from newspapers and other forms of media. “The magazines aren’t expected to break news,” he explains, “so we can delve deeper into the topics we write about.” Jonathan has a keen interest in history and technology, and writes lengthier articles whenever he has time.

As for his life as a musician, Jonathan says he only started playing around three years ago. “My friends were starting a band and they invited me to play keyboard.” While being rather new to being in a band, Jonathan says he’s been involved in
music since college, when he worked in a record store, promoted concerts, and
had many friends in bands.

Now, Jonathan plays with friends, some of whom he’s known for twenty years, in a band called Lark’s Tongue. The band sells their music on vinyl and online. Jonathan considers his band’s music psychedelic rock, though he believes that Lark’s Tongue has a niche of its own. “It’s not mainstream but it’s not blow-your-eardrums type of music either. It’s loud but it’s also melodic.” Jonathan and his band members all give input when composing as well. “We usually start with a guitar riff and then everyone creates their own parts.”

Jonathan and his fellow band members also created the record label Bird Dialect to promote other bands who want to sell their music on vinyl, such as Il Cattivo and Minsk.

Lark’s Tongue has done several tours despite every member having a full-time job. “It’s very difficult, we have to schedule around everyone’s job,” and scheduling for tours can be tiring. “It’s a lot of emailing, going back and forth to schedule venues and contacting other bands, especially when we do it all ourselves.” Even if it is difficult, Jonathan believes it is important to do tours and spread out to other places. “It’s very easy to get lost in the internet now,” and Jonathan believes that it’s important for bands to play live as a way to become more personal with their fans. Through live performing, Jonathan believes it “adds more vibrancy to the arts community.”

Last January, Lark’s Tongue toured in several southern cities including Memphis, New Orleans, and San Antonio. This coming July, the band is planning to play in Nashville, Louisville, and Knoxville, Tennessee followed by three performances in Ohio. During their time in Tennessee they will also be playing with a band called Tanks.

For more information about Jonathan Wright, visit For updates on his band, Lark’s Tongue, visit to find out tour schedules or listen to their music on Bandcamp at

Peoria Artist Pam Miller Loves Murals

Peoria, Illinois painter Pam Miller

By Molly Richmond / Photography by Craig Stocks

There’s a familiar saying, “Those who can… do, and those who can’t…teach.” I had the great privilege of meeting the exception to the rule in Pam Miller. Not only is she an accomplished painter, but has been teaching painting classes for over thirty years.

Pam originally grew up in Minnesota, but has also lived in many other cities before calling Washington, Illinois home. She has been a permanent fixture at the Peoria Michael’s art store for the past 11 years.

Pam recalled watching William Alexander‘s oil painting show on her family’s black and white television, and it was a show that she never missed. That television instructor was the very one who taught PBS oil painting instructor Bob Ross how to paint.

“I remember my first art class I attended in my mid twenties. It was a folk art class, but I only went a couple times because the instructor ruined one of my brushes,” she recalled trying to hold back her laughter.

“After that I taught myself how to paint out of art books.” Although she began as a self taught artist, she quickly realized that helping others with their painting projects was something that spoke to her spirit. “I absolutely love teaching. My favorite part is watching their confidence blossom when they finally get it, and there is nothing better than having a huge blank canvas just waiting to be adorned by someone’s creation.”

Over the years Pam has worked in many retail chain stores, but for the last eleven years she has been employed by Michael’s in their Peoria store. Pam has also been certified as a Grumbacher instructor which specializes in beginner’s acrylic paint class.

Pam’s love of art extends beyond painting, she also teaches polymer clay classes for adults & jewelry classes. Pam has also been a long standing member of the Washington Fine Arts Society and sells many of her own paintings and jewelry at their annual Fine Art show which is held every August.

Although Pam loves teaching her students, her favorite thing to do is painting murals. We were fortunate enough to see one of her spectacular creations at Dr. Ruelas’s dentist office located on Juliet Drive in north Peoria. The stone effect mural was not only life-like, but when you took a closer look at the detail, little whimsical fairies could be found hiding within the design.

Pam has also done murals for residential homes and finds painting children’s rooms especially rewarding. Currently she is working on a project which is a custom painted table top for a children’s room. “I am painting the face of a clock on the top of the table and it’s very detailed, but when it’s finished it’s going to be darling.”

If you’ve ever wanted to give wings to your creative side, why not sign up for one of Pam’s classes, and you never know what hidden talents may be discovered. Pam’s painting class schedule at the Peoria Michael’s store is: Wednesday 5:30-8:30pm and Thursday 10:00-1:00. Cost: is $25.00 fee plus your supplies and you must register 24 hours in advance of the class time. When you register, you will be given a supply list. All the items can be purchased right there at the store.

Feel free to contact Pam at, or you can visit her website at For commissioned work you can call her at 309-253-1789, or just pop in the Michael’s store and tell them Playing Peoria sent you.

Belly Dancer Pava Johnson is Moved by the Music

Peoria, Illinois belly dancer and instructor Pava Johnson

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Peoria, Illinois belly dancer and instructor Pava Johnson grew up with a combination of classical dance and Serbian folk dance and music. But, when she discovered belly dancing, she immediately fell in love with the art form.

Pava was born and raised in Peoria. The daughter of Serbian parents, she was surrounded by their culture and music. Her father had a Serbian Tamburitzan band. Her mother, a folk dancer, enrolled Pava in dance when she was only four years old, “because I was so clumsy,” she recalled. She studied, and later taught, a variety of dance forms including ballet, tap, point, jazz, tumbling, Hawaiian, Tahitian and Gypsy Flamenco.

She first discovered belly dancing after the birth of her son. When she happened to see an advertisement for belly dancing classes, she enrolled immediately, “to get fit again and get back into shape. I loved the art form!” she said.

“For four years, I went back and forth to Chicago taking lessons and dancing. I started my own classes here because I wanted people to understand that it is an art form. Belly dancing is the mind, body and spirit. I wanted to be an all-around belly dancer, but my real love is gypsy belly dancing, but I do a lot of eastern European and Indian belly dancing. It’s just joyful music.”

“You don’t need to have a dance background in order to learn to belly dance. It’s a different art form. And, it’s the best workout any woman can do. It’s specifically geared to where women want to shape up. It tones you up from the chest down, mostly working on the core. And, it’s not hard on your shins.”

Pava explained that any woman can learn to belly dance. “But,” she said, “I don’t teach children. Belly dancing is geared to a feminine body, and young children don’t have that yet. Children need a background in the fine arts, toe, tap, and ballet – the things other children do.”

Pava’s favorite part? “Teaching,” she said. “I love being a teacher. I like to share my gift with others.   It’s almost a light bulb moment. They start learning the steps and listening to the music. Then they learn the choreography, and then they learn to enjoy their choreography. You can see when all of a sudden, boom, they’ve got their combinations.”

“I choreograph music for my troupe,” she explained, “But for myself, I have to feel it. I’ve never done the same dance twice.  It’s based on how I feel at the time. Dancing is expressing your life.”

For Pava, dancing is the best therapy. “I don’t care how down in the dumps I am, I can always go down to my studio and put on some music, it changes my mood. It just lifts up what’s going on. It helps tremendously. Normally, I’ll just randomly pick out a CD and put it on, but sometimes I’ll pick some Serbian music because it reminds me of my folks. I just can’t sit still when I hear gypsy or Serbian music.”

For more information, visit Pava’s website at

Tracey Frugoli’s Art Takes Her to New Heights

Peoria, Illinois artist Tracey Frugoli

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

Peoria artist and photographer Tracey Frugoli was first introduced to art as a child when her father brought home art supplies for Tracey and her older sister. She always loved drawing, but when her skills began to surpass those of her sister, she realized she was on to something.

Tracey grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Her father was a drafting engineer and enjoyed sharing his talent for sketching.  She was fortunate to have had good art programs in school. Her high school art program even included jewelry making, which got Tracey hooked.

After high school Tracey earned a bachelor of fine art degree at Illinois State University with a focus on jewelry and metalworking. After graduating, she realized the passion for metalworking was gone.  “Metal working requires a lot of planning, and it’s a lot of work to get from A to Z,” she said. “I didn’t have the love of it enough to spend the time required. I wanted something a lot more immediate.”

After graduation, Tracey felt the BFA program did a poor job of preparing students to earn a living from art. She also knew she didn’t want to go the route of teaching at a university. After some searching, she discovered the art therapy program at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and quickly concluded that was the right direction for her. After earning her masters degree, she and began working in the field of art therapy and soon moved to Peoria to be closer to her boyfriend, who is now her husband.

Even while working as an art therapist, she continued to explore other artistic directions. “I tried other media, such as colored pencils and pastels,” Tracey explained.  “I first started plein air painting in water colors and pastels. I was reading an artist magazine to learn new skills and saw an article about a group of artists who had been invited to the Forbes Mansion in France for a week to paint. I immediately thought, “I want to do that.” That started me on my interest in plein air painting.”

Trace’s journey to master plein air techniques also led her to switch from pastels to oil paints.  “Plein air painting is very different, so I took a lot of workshops in Italy and France and they were working in oil. I saw that they could mix the exact color they wanted. When I got home, I tried and I liked it so much I never looked back. I still have my pastels and water colors, but I’ll probably never use them.”

“It’s just the opposite of pushing metal around – it’s so loose and free,” Tracey said. “I love the richness of the color – I love the juiciness. It’s like a weird thing we oil painters get. We love the smell of the oil and the look of it mixed on the pallet.”

Tracey also loves the challenge of plein air painting. “With plein air, you set up right in front of your subject, and you have about two hours before the light and the scene changes. You have to bring your ‘A’ game to the easel, and to every single stroke. Every brush stroke has to be purposeful. Every second is time that the light is changing.”

Tracey loves the experience of being outdoors with the scene she’s painting. “I was standing on the coast in California and the waves are crashing on the rocks,” she recalled, “and I was getting buffeted by the wind. At the end when I was packing up, I was so grateful that I had had that experience. Once I’ve painted that, I have that experience inside my brain and inside of me forever, no matter what happens to the painting. I remember I was packing up and it was foggy, and I looked back at the scene and said “Thank you. Thanks for letting me be here. Thanks for being so awesome!””

Lately, Tracey has begun to expand her artwork to include photography, particularly portraiture. “The techie side of photography appeals to me,” she said. “I really enjoy challenging my brain to understand the technical side of photography.  It’s stimulating to me.”

“Photographers see and think about light differently,” she continued. “I wanted something new – I wanted a new dialog going on. It’s our job as painters to record the light. As I looked a photographers’ work where they manipulated the light, I came to appreciate it. Photographers capture moments of light where a painter captures a period of time.”

Tracey is also drawn to the psychological interactions that occur during a photo shoot. “I love the connecting part. I was drawn to portrait photography because I thought, “This is cool. I would like to be connecting with people.””

“I also like the idea of bringing out the inner beauty of people. When we look at someone, we don’t see their wrinkles or flaws. Our friends and loved ones don’t see that. I want to bring out what our loved ones see.”

Tracey is finding a synergy between painting and photography. “There are lots of ways that photography has influenced my painting,” she said.  “In the past year, I feel like I’ve painted better than I ever have. I attribute that to photography. I also bring my painters artistic eye to photography.”

Tracey is currently preparing for a solo show for Pierce Gallery where she’ll be showing both painting and photography. “I saw it as an opportunity to have the two come together. I’ll be doing some fusion pieces that have both photography and painting in one piece. I don’t see photography overshadowing painting.

Watch for Tracey’s show opening in August at the Pierce Gallery in Dunlap. You can learn more about Tracy’s artwork at, and her photography at Tracey also worked with Peoria videographer Raphael Rodolfi to create a time lapse video of Tracey painting.

Tracey Frugoli – Juliet from Videogenique on Vimeo.

Baker Jess Reyling is Cooking up Her Art

Peoria, Illinois baker Jessica Reyling

By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks

Jess Reyling has made it big in the world of cakes, but prefers keeping her baking close to her home and her heart. After competing in the third season of The Next Great Baker on TLC, she’s right back to baking just for the love of it.

Jess grew up in Chillicothe, and now lives in Peoria with her husband and three children, boys all under the age of five. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Midstate College and a master’s degree in business management from Kaplan University.

Baking is something she has always done. She remembers baking with her mother and her grandmother, but it was never something she was interested in until she had kids of her own. She wanted to learn to do the same things for her kids that her grandmother and mother had done for her: making Halloween costumes and baking birthday cakes.

She spent an entire night working on a cake for her first son’s baptism, only to end up buying one at Kroger the following day. Following the cake disaster, she decided to take some cake decorating classes through Wilton® at Michael’s.

“I discovered I loved it and couldn’t stop,” Jess said. “I couldn’t wait to make more cakes, and I wound up making [my son’s] first birthday cake.”

After getting the hang of it all, she realized the fun and challenge of it isn’t in the technique itself, it’s in stretching your creativity to make something unique.

“It’s not necessarily hard… if you know what kind of tools you need and how to use those tools you can do just about anything,” she said. “Once you’re taught how to do it, [the possibilities] are pretty endless, which makes it really fun.”

Of all the things she could do with her creativity, she chooses to make consumable art. While some people find it odd that she would spend so much time on something that won’t last long after being put on the table, it makes it all the more fun for her.

“It’s so cool to me. It’s one of the few forms of art that actually uses most of your senses to consume.  You see it, you taste it, and you can smell it,” Jess said. “When a cake is set there, the focus is placed on the cake because people can’t wait to have a slice of it.”

The science of baking also intrigues Jess, who likes to change up recipes, trying new things and making them her own. While this can end up with results anywhere along the spectrum—either amazing, inedible, or somewhere in the middle—understanding the science is key to making successful new concoctions. “Its like a little science experiment in your kitchen every time you cook,” she said. “Maybe I should have been a chemist!”

Her sense of humor and general joyful character quite possibly secured her a spot on the third season of The Next Great Baker. After coming across the casting call online one night, she decided to send in an application and see what happened, never expecting to hear from them. She got a phone call the next day.

For her audition, she was required to make a few short videos showing her decorating skill and her competitive nature. She chose to make a garden gnome out of Rice Krispies treats and fondant in only five minutes time. The other part of her video audition included an ice cream eating competition with an Emo’s employee, where they ate ice cream with their faces.

Eventually, after another round of preliminary competitions in New York, she was chosen to compete on the show. She surprised even herself with how comfortable she was with the cameras.

“Being in a house where I have three little kids running around, making noise, screaming, and there’s constantly something going on, the chaotic nature of being on television didn’t phase me like it did to some of the other people,” she said. “There’s always noise going on, it’s sticky, and you’re expected to multitask. I was like ‘Well I don’t do anything different than this at home.’”

While she kept her cool and remained true to her character on the show, it’s not the kind of life she wants to have, preferring to spend time with her boys.

“My favorite part of baking is whenever I get my mixer down from the cabinets, the kids come running,” Jess said. “Nothing is cuter than being in the kitchen with your back to our kitchen table and you hear that chair raking across the floor. You turn around and see the cutest little cherub face with a smile like ‘I’m gonna help you.’”

While she has done so in the past, Jess is not currently doing any commercial baking. For now she’s keeping it personal and just baking for the one’s she loves.

Architect Geoff Smith Creates Art We Can Walk Through

Peoria, Illinois architect Jeff Smith

By Molly Richmond / Photography by Craig Stocks

Architecture may be what Geoff Smith does, but in his heart he’s a visionary artist.

Geoff was born in Peoria, but at the age of five his family moved to Connecticut where his father took a job as a hospital administrator. He returned to Peoria and attended Bergan High School and it was there that he found his niche. “I remember when I was young, I always liked to draw things and that’s why I took the art class. My art teacher told my mom that I was the nicest boy, and very talented, and draws very well, but she didn’t think I had a future in the arts,” he stated rolling his eyes as if to say, “I showed her didn’t I.”

Upon graduation Geoff was accepted to Southern Illinois University where he studied physiology. “I was always interested in science and math even though I also liked art. When you combine science and math with art and put them all together, that’s architecture. I took a class which was creative problem solving and it changed me.” And with that realization, Geoff pulled up stakes and set out for the University of Illinois where he graduated with his degree in architecture in 1985.

His first job took him to the windy city of Chicago for nine years. Then lightening struck and Geoff landed the job as Corporate Architect for Boston Market. At this point, Geoff is married with one daughter and another one on the way and he packs the family up and heads to Denver Colorado.  “I left mainstream architecture to do franchise architecture with Boston Market and it was a great opportunity. That job allowed me to practice architecture on my own terms.”

Eventually Geoff would move back to Peoria to be closer to family and with that move he began working for Phillips Swager Associates. He took over a huge project which was at his beloved U of I which was designing a parking deck and fire station on the campus. And his favorite project was the Dirksen Congressional Leadership Research Center in Pekin, Illinois. “It was a great project, it was a small project, but they required us to do three different drawings from which they would choose from. Typically you don’t get asked to do three different concepts or drawings, but this one they did.”

For Geoff, architecture isn’t just about coming up with the concept, drawing it and designing the building, it’s about the clients. “The most enjoyable thing about my job is the people I get to meet and the relationships that are formed. I maintain a personal connection with my clients even when the project is completed.”

When I asked who he looks up to as an architect he replied, “Louis Kahn. I got to see the building he designed when I was at Yale University.” Louis Kahn was considered one of the most influential architects of the 20th century and his works were said to have been monumental beyond modernism.

And like his role model Louis, Geoff had the esteemed privilege to design the Olin Hall Science Building at Bradley University which was a project estimated at 20 million dollars. “That project was what brought me full circle. I started out in science and math then went into art. Now I’ve designed a beautiful building where all my favorite subjects are under one roof.”

For more information on Geoff Smith, contact River City Design Group or email Geoff at

Camron Johnson Draws Life as he Sees it

Washington, Illinois artist Camron Johnson

By Molly Richmond / Photography by Craig Stocks

When you first meet Camron Johnson the first thought that comes to mind is, “here is a young man that epitomizes your typical boy next door.” What I quickly learned was that his artistic ability is the farthest thing from typical; in fact, his pen and ink drawings are nothing short of spectacular.

Camron is currently enrolled as an art major at Illinois Central College which is right down the road from where he grew up in Washington, Illinois. After graduation, he plans to further his education and secure his art degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia this fall.

As we entered one of the art rooms he directed us to a table that was filled with illustrations done in pen and ink. Off to the side was a mask that he designed for the main character featured in his first comic book series. As I marveled at the extraordinary detail of his drawings I asked him when he started drawing and if he came from an artistic family. “I remember drawing with my friends in grade school, but I’m the first artist in my family. I don’t think that anyone in my family could even draw a stick person,” he joked.

In his sophomore year of high school he took his first art class, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he fell in love with black and white drawings and using ink. That same year was when he achieved the DaVinci Art Award that is given only to area seniors. Camron submitted his art portfolio which contained a variety of different art forms, but his main focus was his pen and ink drawings. His family and friends were thrilled with his accomplishment.

As I glanced through his work I asked, “If you do all the artwork, who does your writing for the characters?” Cameron replied, “My grade school friend, Jordan Wilson, is an English major at the University of Illinois and I send him my pictures and tell him what I want to convey in the message and he puts the words together. The comic book is called ‘Thy Neighbor’ and the characters don’t have names. They are a group of ex-military, black op, guys for hire that can be rough and violent, but not evil. They work against the establishment because it’s corrupt and they work for hire like a hitman, but in a good way.”

I walked over to where he had some illustrations framed and was amazed at the level of detail. “I would really like to illustrate children’s books and maybe do other book covers or magazines,” he stated as his eyes lit up just thinking of the possibilities. Camron picked up one of his framed pieces, “This specific one was awarded ‘Best Illustration’ at the ICC Juried Exposition last year,” he said.

I told Camron that artists really fascinate me and I’ve always wondered how they do what they do and he explained, “I’ve always liked sci-fi, action and horror things which is what has probably rotted my brain, but I like to draw what most people don’t see. It gets their attention. Some of my pictures depict the creepy people or situations I’ve experienced throughout my life.”

Afterwards we all sat down and Camron was asked, “When you start a project do you know what it is that you’re drawing?” Camron took a contemplative moment then responded, “With the comic book, yes because I knew what I wanted it to be, but with other drawings I just start drawing and my pen just flows. The illustrations tell you what they want to be.” And I believe Camron, himself, is a testament to the very work he has mastered. Just as the stroke of the ink is placed permanently on the sheet, Camron Johnson has found his artistic niche and without a doubt will make a lasting impression for years to come.

You can see Camron’s work from May 7-17 at the ICC Student Gallery located in the lower level. Camron received an honorable mention for page 22 of his comic, and won Best Of Show in the illustration category for a piece called “Swagger Jacker.” Camron also produced a live-action trailer for the comic that is available on YouTube.

Contact Camron at and view his digital gallery at

Tori Michaels: Making Art meet Science

Peoria, Illinois life coach and Certified Feng Shui Practitioner Tori Michaels

By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks

There are times when we can all use some help, whether it’s help organizing a closet, an entire household, or our life’s goals. That’s when many people turn to life coach and Certified Feng Shui Professional Tori Michaels. With some coaching and a new take on a 4,000-year-old art form, she’s helping people transform their lives.

Tori got her start working in a retail store and helping people feel good about the clothes they wore. That’s when she started changing lives. “It was my favorite thing in the world to do,” she said. “Anybody can look amazing if they know certain rules… I love dressing people.” One customer was so impressed with her guidance that she asked Tori to become her personal wardrobe consultant. Tori accepted – and she soon began working with more people.

It started with picking out clothes and organizing closets.  “I’d go into their closets and pull out what didn’t work. And this is where I really I started noticing the pathology of the closet,” Tori said. “[People were] holding on to the past… Without realizing that’s what I was doing, I was coaching people to let go of the past and live in the present.”

She began taking classes to become a life coach, and combined that with her love for organization; the two met at feng shui.  Feng shui, which translates to “wind water,” revolves around the idea that our environment affects us, much as water is affected by wind blowing over it. Our environment includes our homes, offices and cars.

As a life coach, she helps people decide what they want from life, and she then helps them get there. She believes that when you understand yourself, you love and respect yourself, which in turn helps change your life.

“You’re not going to get into a relationship that doesn’t honor you. You’re not going to take jobs or be in a work environment that doesn’t honor and respect you,” she said. “You’re more likely to be giving and compassionate, because when you love and appreciate and approve of yourself, you have more love to give.”

She believes that without feng shui, there is only so much the coaching can do. Without changing someone’s environment, the life changes won’t be as dramatic. “It’s a very holistic way of coaching,” she said. “That’s why I integrate the two together. They are very important for me in my practice.”

There are many different schools of feng shui, and Tori takes a modern and western approach to the ancient art and science. She practices BTB Feng Shui, which uses a bagua map to sense the way energy flows through a space.

It’s more than organizing, moving around furniture and changing wall colors. According to feng shui teaching, everything is energy, and everything is connected by that energy—whether it’s a photograph that we associate a specific emotion or memory with, or a book that we associate a specific feeling with.

When changing someone’s home environment, she begins in the bedroom, where she says people spend the most time, and their most vulnerable time: sleeping. Having balance in the room, she says, begins with two matching bedside tables and nothing under the bed. “Everything has energy. You’re energy. I’m energy,” she said. “We’re connected by energy, seen and unseen.”

She said everything has a feminine and a masculine side, left and right respectively. Pushing the bed against the wall or having things under the bed blocks that energy and can cause people to have trouble sleeping and even back pain.

Besides personal life coaching, Tori teaches a class called “Your Best Year Ever”. Many people take the class repeatedly to continue improving themselves.

“I love teaching so much,” she said. “My very favorite thing to do is to get a group of people and have them visually see other people changing. It inspires change within themselves.”

Her life coaching program is a 20 week commitment, and her goal is that her clients will be unrecognizable to themselves at the end. Visit her website and contact her if you’re interested in having her transform your life—both inside and out.

Jacob Grant: Finding Form in Function

Peoria, Illinois potter Jacob Grant sits in the entrance to his kiln

By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks

In an old brick warehouse south of downtown Peoria you’ll find a man in a work shirt and jeans, covered in white dust, sitting around a revolving plate and a hunk of clay. His name is Jacob Grant, and he is a potter.

Jacob grew up in Arcola, Illinois, a small town south of Champaign. Growing up on a farm, his mind was focused on the analytical, not the creative.

It wasn’t until middle school when he got into art, after having an art teacher show him that he could draw. He continued in art until his freshman year of college, when he studied art for a semester at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois.

After finishing his general education courses, he considered going to auto mechanic school in Chicago. Instead, he ended up at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois, again majoring in art and getting his “head back screwed on tight.”

Soon after completing his associate’s degree, he was majoring in art at Eastern Illinois University. Then his plans changed again.

“I thought I was going to do painting and drawing, to be quite honest, but when I got to Eastern I had to take a 3-dimensional class,” Jacob said. “I took ceramics to start off with and fell in love with it.”

His love for ceramics and pottery continued as he worked odd jobs, and he decided to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts at Bradley University. He studied ceramics and taught classes at Bradley, Illinois Central College, and Robert Morris University up until last year.

“I loved going to Bradley. I loved having three years to dedicate to work,” he said. “It was three of the best years of my life and especially of being an artist.”

After working at the Peoria Art Guild for 5 years, the studio school program was shut down, and he and Suzie Mathews decided to open a studio of their own.

They opened Wheel Art Pottery Studios in 2010 and relocated to a new facility last summer. Jacob loves working with the community, teaching classes and offering memberships to the studio (similar to how a gym membership works).

Pottery has a certain amount of chemistry involved in the process, from firing the pots to making glazes, which taps into the analytical side of his brain.

According to Jacob, much of the artistic community sees pottery as a craft instead of an art form. It’s a challenging medium that takes a long time to master, and for Jacob the challenge and functionality of pottery combined with the form is what draws him in.

“The pragmatic vessel just made sense to me because I came from farm country. Something that had a purpose made sense. I didn’t grow up around art… I grew up around the mentality that things had to have a purpose,” he said. “The functionality got a hold of me pretty quickly, but also the fact that the medium was so different and so challenging compared to anything else I had ever done.”

As far as form is concerned, he draws inspiration from the human form and nature for much of his design and colors. The parts of pots are related to parts of the human body: neck, shoulder, waist, belly, and foot.

“I’m inspired by elements of nature other than just the human form. For texture I often look to rocks, trees and grass,” he said. “The colors I’m drawn to are often earthy colors… really most of my stuff comes from elements of nature.”

Jacob teaches 8-week class series throughout the year, as well as special workshops like the Couple’s Wine and Clay Workshops, and the studio is available for parties.

Check out Wheel Art Pottery Studios’ website, upcoming events, or drop in for a visit on First Friday’s. Call them at 309-306-1741 or check out their facebook page for more information.

Playing Peoria – Looking Back and Ahead

Montage of photos from the first year of Playing Peoria

By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks

This week marks the one year anniversary of Playing Peoria. What started as a hazily formed idea for a small, personal photography project has been transformed into an online publication serving the arts community of Central Illinois.

The idea formed while my wife and I were spending some time in Los Angeles. It seemed like everyone was in the art or entertainment business – photographers, artists, actors, entertainers, drive-thru attendants at In-N-Out Burger – everyone wanted to be in show business. I realized that there’s just as much talent in Central Illinois, but much of it is hidden. I wanted to explore the concept photographically, and I wanted to learn the artists’ stories. In the end, it only made sense to share what I’d learned through a blog, and so Playing Peoria was born.

They say, “Luck favors the prepared,” but I suspect I’m more likely the beneficiary of “Dumb Luck.” One of the first people I contacted was local magician Mitch Williams. He eagerly agreed to be part of the project, but he also introduced me to Suzette Boulais, Executive Director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. We quickly realized we had similar goals, and my photography began serving two purposes. Besides illustrating the stories on Playing Peoria, my photos also became part of ArtsPartners’ “All about the Arts” marketing campaign celebrating the breadth and depth of talent in Central Illinois.

I’ve had the privilege to meet some of the most amazing people along the way, and many of them have become friends. The one thing they all have in common is a passion for what they do and an eagerness to share it. Actor and theatre owner Mary Simon wants to make sure fellow actors and audience alike have a good time. Sculptor and artist Morgan Elser didn’t even realize she was an artist until just a few years ago when she found she could translate the image in her mind through her hands and into clay, and that discovery changed her life.

Painter Steve Boyd paints fanciful scenes and attempts to recreate the colors he saw during a near-death experience. Steve’s paintings are fully formed in his mind before he ever puts brush to canvas while fellow artist Becky Draland-Doyle’s works evolve as she lets the canvas tell her what it wants to be.

Many of the artists are involved with education and community improvement. Sculptors Fisher Stolz and Jaci Willis help Bradley students develop as artists. Former music group roadie Jeff Mosher applies his skills to helping members of the ELITE Pulses of Hope Drumline beat the drums of success while dancer Amanda Relph mentors young dancers in her CityDance program. Jon Neidy facilitates lifelong learning for adults while business woman Jan Sullivan provides the costumes for intermediate and high school performances throughout the US and Canada.

Through this experience, I’ve also learned a lot about the arts community in Central Illinois. I was lucky that we had art and music programs in school when I was young. Unfortunately, many people today consider art, theatre and music to be luxuries for just a few. The truth however, is that we all benefit from the arts. Nearly everything you see and hear was created by an artist with the goal of enriching our lives. I can’t imagine how dull life would be without artists.

I’ve also learned that the arts are good business. Businessmen like Steve Rouland, Jon Walker and Jeff Embry are leveraging art into business, but it doesn’t end there.  A recent study by Arts Alliance Illinois found that just the non-profit arts events in Peoria generate $20.4 million annually in business revenue, jobs and tax dollars. And, much of that comes from cultural tourists visiting the Peoria area. The arts don’t just play in Peoria; the arts pay in Peoria too.

Through it all, I’ve had lots of help. Suzette Boulais and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois have helped me find many of the people who’ve been featured on Playing Peoria.  My wife Debbie and my mother Wini have spent countless hours proofreading the posts. Artist Tracey Frugoli braved the heat of summer 2012 to help out on a number of photo shoots, and local photographer Nancy Davis helped with scheduling and logistics during the fall.  Right now, I’m fortunate to have Bradley journalism student Amanda Stoll doing most of the writing while Molly Richmond and Carol Davidson are finding artists and scheduling photo shoots. Playing Peoria is very much a team effort, and I’m truly grateful for their help. And, none of us get paid for this, it’s entirely a volunteer effort.

What’s next? I’m looking forward to the next year of Playing Peoria. While we’ll continue to see traditional artists and entertainers, we’ll also be searching out the more obscure and quirky artists and entertainers. Every artist is unique, and I love hearing and sharing the story of their passion. I’ll also continue to partner with ArtsPartners as we develop a new message for 2013. October is National Arts and Humanities Month and we want everyone to be a part of the celebration.

It’s going to be a fun year.

Designing is Fun for Nicole Blackburn

Peoria, Illinois graphic designer Nicole Blackburn

By Amanda Stoll / Photography By Craig Stocks

It’s a rare thing to be able to make a job doing what you love. For Nicole Blackburn, graphic design is just that. It’s a “marriage,” as she calls it, between her artistic passion and a stable office job.

Nicole grew up in the small town of Kickapoo, Illinois, about 30 minutes west of Peoria.  She attended high school at Peoria Notre Dame High School and went on to study art and graphic design at Illinois Central College and Bradley University.

She has had a knack for art since a young age. Growing up as an only child in a house in the country gave her the opportunity to explore and grow up slowly.

“I’ve basically had a pencil in hand since age one,“ Nicole said. “Being alone a lot I think really nurtured the development of my imagination and creativity… being alone you have to make your own fun.”

Her parents were always supportive of her art, and she had art teachers in high school that helped steer her toward her strengths. She attended ICC and then transferred to Bradley to continue her studies.

“I had really good teachers that challenged me in just the right areas, that sort of pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s like they break you of all those bad art habits and get you to open your mind to new possibilities and techniques and perspectives and ways of thinking.”

She loved the creative atmosphere of college, and after graduating from Bradley in 2008, found the working world to be much different. After graduation she was offered a job designing for Numéro magazine. She has been working there ever since and finds the challenging and creative nature of graphic design to be right up her alley.

“No day is completely the same here. You never know what’s going to be going on,” Nicole said. “That’s what I love about design… good design just feels good. You know it when you feel it.”

Putting together magazine layouts, billboards, advertisements, direct mailers, postcards, or whatever else comes her way is like a puzzle for her, always presenting a new exciting challenge.

“You have all these pieces.  I have the text coming in from a freelance writer and photos coming in. It’s like a puzzle,” she said. “I have to fit the pieces just in the right balance and composition to convey the message and get the style across. But that’s what’s fun – it’s a challenge.”

Aside from work, Nicole constantly explores other areas of art during any and all free time she has.

“I have a zillion hobbies. I just love trying any new creative venue I can,” she said. “I can’t just let my hands be idle… It’s like your cup inside keeps filling up and you need to pour it out into whatever creativity catches your eye.”

Her designs at work are focused on the client, so her personal work is where her true influences really show. Nature and faith are two of her biggest influences, whatever the medium may be.

“I think nature itself is beautiful design,” Nicole said. “If you look at things really closely they have a design and a composition down to the subatomic level. I’m greatly inspired by all the colors in nature, and I’ve always used that in my work.”

Numero magazine is available in print at numerous locations throughout Central Illinois. You can also find it online at and on Facebook at

Stephanie McWhirter’s Training Comes from the Heart

Peoria, Illinois nurse and artist Stephanie McWhirter with her sketch pad

By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks

With no studio and no formal art education, Stephanie McWhirter uses what she feels in her heart to direct her pencil.  She’s making her work more public now, after years of keeping it very personal.

Stephanie grew up on a farm just outside of Peoria, near Tanner’s Apple Orchard. Her father was a farmer, and her mother was always busy with the seven kids. As a child, she spent a lot of time playing the piano and drawing.

“It just seemed like so many cool things were done with the hands,” Stephanie said. “I could make beautiful music with my hands when I was little, so I played music for a long time.”

Along with her continued drawing hobby, her work as a nurse in the OSF St. Francis Medical Center Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) is dependent on what she can do with her hands. Consequently, much of her art reflects her appreciation for hands.

She has no formal art training and no formal studio, working on her art where she is most at home— curled up on the couch in her living room, surrounded by her 3 kids and their 3 dogs.

She works mostly in black and white, keeping to the basic pencil, paper, eraser equation, but occasionally works color into her drawings. She began drawing at a young age, when a pencil and paper were some of her only options for supplies, as well as one of the few things to do.

“You can make something look like it’s almost alive with just a pencil, a piece of paper and an eraser,” Stephanie said. “That’s really all I had [growing up], so that’s what I draw with.”

Sometimes she takes her art to work with her, sitting quietly by the babies’ bedsides and drawing. She began working at OSF after attending nursing school there, and has since worked there for 6 years. It’s rewarding and exhausting, both emotionally and physically. She channels those emotions into her art to help her cope with them.

“I really had a hard time finding where to put those [feelings] when the babies would die or when they would go home and you don’t see them anymore,” she said. “I can take out those emotions sometimes when I get stuck when I’m drawing, and I can remember what I felt.”

As she often tells her kids, it’s necessary to unload some of those emotions before they become overwhelming. Comparing it to a sack that gets fuller and fuller, she said you need to take those emotions out and deal with them before your sack “blows up.”

Her faith plays a large role in her work, and her life as a whole. At work, she prays with parents, families and patients on a daily basis to help them with the struggles they are going through.

“Faith plays a part in everything I do, absolutely,” Stephanie said. “I know where my source for everything comes from, and that is absolutely through my faith and through Christ.”

Maybe soon her faith will start to show in her art as well, but because it’s still new for her to share it with people, those things haven’t come out on paper quite yet.

“I believe it’s a gift, but it’s also very personal,” she said. “It makes me a little nervous sometimes when people look at it… its like a part of you that you put on paper.”

She has many pieces that she keeps to herself, and many that she only shares with her family and close friends, but keep an eye out for Stephanie on the local art scene as she breaks out to show the rest of the world her drawings.