Galleries Rise & Revitalize

by Sara Browning

New art galleries are popping up across central Illinois, giving everyone from promising students to creative veterans a chance to showcase their talents.

In recent months, local communities have seen an influx of new art galleries and centers encompassing all things creative. The renovation and repurposing of old buildings into artistic showrooms is helping to generate new life in neighborhoods aching for revitalization. Such transformation doesn’t happen by accident, but through the conscious efforts of passionate volunteers seeking to turn the tide on a downward spiral in the arts by opening up fresh avenues for learning and creativity.

Affecting Transformation
Local artist Doug Goessman knows the meaning of transformation after watching a two-story-and-basement building transition from a Prohibition-era drinking hall into a space for the artistically expressive. A former speakeasy turned eclectic art gallery, the Speakeasy Art Center located at 353 Court Street in Pekin held an open house on April 24th, when dozens of artists of all ages had their work on display.

According to Goessman, the open house was “a great starting point for the facility in terms of what is to come.” With space for approximately 20 individual studios, the gallery exhibits encompass everything from sculpture to music to photography. “We really want to make this a multi-purpose space,” he says, noting that while all the “major stuff” is in place, much more work lies ahead.

A Chicago native who has lived in the Pekin area for about 15 years, Goessman teaches art classes at Peoria’s Richwoods High School and sits on the board of the Contemporary Art Center. His own high school years nurtured his passion—which includes mixed-media paintings, silk screen prints and pop art—and he says his artwork was never just a hobby. “When I was in college, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew going into the field to make a living was a bit of a gamble, but for me, it was a good gamble.” While his own work is featured across the country and even abroad, Goessman says his foremost desire is to help other artists become successful. “I’m looking for opportunities to help everybody out rather than just myself.”

His involvement with the Speakeasy Art Center is one such opportunity. The journey began two years ago when co-owners Todd Thompson of Manito and Steve Foster of Groveland approached Goessman to glean ideas on how to usher more artwork into the Pekin community. To bring the dream to pass, the three worked in collaboration with Pekin Main Street, a community project that aims to revitalize the city’s downtown area.

That collaboration was the impetus for beginning renovations, according to Goessman. “Todd said, ‘We have this building. What can we do with it?’ Then it hit me: Let’s build this multi-purpose art gallery,” he says.

Goessman claims that Thompson and Foster are the “brains behind the operation,” while he keeps the heart of the project beating, accumulating regional interest and artistic talent. Thompson, a builder with a commercial construction background, says the more than hundred-year-old building has housed a ceramic shop, comedy club and numerous restaurants over the years, but has sat empty for the last five or six.

Thompson says he and Foster “didn’t make a whole lot of changes. We did a lot of cleaning, and we removed a lot of the improvements people had done in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and took it back to its original form.” Foster, who handles the mechanical and electrical end of things, says they are taking the “greenest approach possible” to the demolition process, recycling or repurposing items elsewhere in the building.

A Living Project
The transformation is an “evolving process,” according to Thompson. He describes the building as a “living project” that is being continuously renewed and perfected by local artists and community volunteers. “We want the whole place to be art—everywhere,” he says, pointing to two ceiling columns that were once drab but now divulge a shiny golden finish. “We let the building be what it is and let the artists define what it needs to be.”

The Speakeasy gallery will serve as a primer for local involvement in the arts and an outlet for artistic talent. “We’re finding that the community has a lot of talented artists that don’t really have a place to show off their work or strengthen their skills,” Thompson says, motioning toward a chalk drawing of a lion so well-crafted it could easily be mistaken for a photograph. “Artwork like that—that’s just scary talent. And that’s what we want. We want to embrace any talented individual of any age and give them a space.”

Thompson cited many schools that are moving away from teaching traditional art classes. “That’s why we’re doing this. Art is the way to revitalize anything, and we want to revitalize downtown Pekin.”

To that end, the organizers of the Speakeasy Art Center hope to bring “a splash of culture” into the community. “This is a gallery that’s all-inclusive with a broad range of subject matter and mediums,” says Goessman. “It’s not just contemporary. It’s not just photography. It’s very eclectic and gives everyone an opportunity…We want to stay open with variety. Balance is key.”

For more information on the Speakeasy Art Center of Central Illinois, log onto facebook.com/speakeasyartcenter.

A Higher Direction
Art has the power to heal, to move, to make one laugh or simply stand in awe; it also has the ability to redeem the human spirit. No one knows this better than Jonathon Romain, a successful gallery owner for 15 years, whose own life story has been molded, shaped and beautified much as art itself. One might never guess this painter, photographer, entrepreneur, speaker and advocate served seven years in prison at the Dixon Correctional Center just weeks after graduating from Bradley University in 1990 with a degree in psychology.

Romain, 43, grew up in the ghetto on the west side of Chicago. His love for art was evident from a young age. As a child, he began drawing and “just never stopped. I always had a passive affinity for [art]. For me, it was a natural talent.”

During his middle school years, Romain lived on Peoria’s south side before returning to Chicago. But like many young people, adolescence presented challenges for Romain, and he became involved in crime and gang activities. After transferring to Bradley from Triton Junior College, he took independent study courses in art, but the self-destructive habits of his youth left him without a sense of direction, and he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years on drug charges.

Five years in prison plus two years in a work release program became a turning point for Romain. Keith Nelson, a warden at Dixon when he was an inmate, afforded him the opportunity to teach art to other inmates and put him in charge of matting and framing. Romain says that, while incarcerated, his drawings and paintings started to look similar to the works of artists he admired. “All of a sudden,” he says, his abilities “started to become proficient. I believe I wouldn’t have been a proficient artist—or any type of artist—if I hadn’t gone to prison.”

Romain says prison gave him something he didn’t always have on the outside—the luxury of time. “Before prison, art was simply pure fun and enjoyment. Over time, it developed into something I could take seriously.”

But while his time behind bars allowed him to nurture his talent, the Chicago-based artist claims that college was the defining impact on his life. “People think who I am today is a direct result of prison, but it’s really a direct result of college and that thing in you that continually propels you to a higher direction—the quest for perfection—the quest to better yourself and to be better than what you see in front of you. That is what changed my life.”

Seeking Out Bigger Things
Following his release from the correctional center, Romain eventually opened the 8,000-square-foot Jonathon Romain Gallery at 1919 North Sheridan in Peoria. But the artist says he “never set out to open a gallery. I was in search of a studio space. When I discovered this location, it was large enough to accommodate every desire and need that I thought I had. So, I kind of just went with the flow.”

From portrait work to abstract art to contemporary drawings and paintings, Romain’s artwork encompasses endless variety. “I would go crazy if I had to do the same thing over and over again,” he says, “so I’m constantly exploring new concepts and taking different directions along the journey.”

The journey has encompassed a few pleasant surprises along the way, including a brush with politics. Commissioned by the National Black Prosecutors Association to paint a portrait of Bill Clinton, Romain spoke to the group following a speech by the former president. The week-long conference also included a presentation of his painting to Clinton.

Romain describes the week’s events as “almost surreal. Every day, they recognized and honored me. I was literally embraced [by the organization]. Having just gotten out of prison at that time, it certainly reinforced everything I had thought of doing. It also set the stage for me to seek out bigger things for my life.”

And greater opportunities did present themselves. Museums, galleries and other national exhibitions have showcased Romain’s work, including The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, The Studio Museum of Harlem and The National Black Fine Art Show in New York. His art is “an extension of his ongoing love affair with the past, both as it relates to African-Americans and to Americans in general,” according to his website. A broad range of artists, from Michelangelo to Norman Rockwell, have influenced his work.

Romain believes that art in general can benefit any community. “When you consider the greatness of a society, art—mine or anyone’s—is always a positive aspect,” he says. “You can never have enough color or beauty.”

In the future, Romain hopes his gallery will serve as an alternative outlet to reach out to young people who may be struggling. Urging them not to give up, to pursue education and to better themselves are the central focuses of his art. “Because I am a black man, my work helps the black children in this area see themselves in a positive light, when we see so many negative images of blacks tossed around so often.”

Aside from his gallery, Romain has helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars to benefit minority scholarships and community organizations nationwide. He serves on the board of directors for Illinois One Family One Child and the Peoria Black Chamber of Commerce and speaks to schools, juvenile facilities and organizations across the country, encouraging young people to strive for success even in the midst of unfavorable circumstances. Romain is currently working on his autobiography, which he hopes to finish this year.

More information on the Jonathon Romain Art Gallery can be found by visiting jromain.com.

Something Old, Something New
Another of the area’s new art galleries was chiseled from one of downtown Peoria’s oldest buildings. The 125-year-old Meyer Block building located at 1311 Southwest Adams Street has been transformed into the Meyer Block Fine Art Gallery and Studios. The gallery, located in Peoria’s Warehouse District—and unofficial “arts district”—“lends itself to art, with the open spaces, high ceilings and sandblasted brick walls,” according to Jeremiah Schmillen, one of three sons of Leonard Schmillen and his wife, Annette, who purchased the building in 1999. The family owns LensCo. Construction Company and Specialty Woodworks of Peoria, which assembles custom architectural millwork products out of the same building.

It has come a long way since its original purchase. Masonry block repair strengthened the failing foundation and created new sidewalks. The building received a new roof, and inside, the ceiling was sandblasted and repaired. Schmillen, who believes several patterns of tin ceilings were used as a marketing technique, constructed the interior walls and offices in the gallery to preserve these patterns.

The renovation of the Meyer Block building is one of several conversions of worn-down buildings to art studios within the district. The revamping dovetails with an effort by ArtsPartners of Central Illinois to strengthen connections between economic and cultural development in the area.

Touring the gallery today, it’s hard to believe the building was once a storage space for roofing materials. The wooden floors are polished, and paintings splashed with vivid color adorn the walls. Above the ground-floor display sits a balcony where the Illinois Central College Jazz Band performed during the gallery’s first exhibition last December.

Jeremiah and his brother, Jack, developed the idea for the studio, discussing various prospects with local artists, including Steph Van Doren, who hosted the December exhibition; Carrie and James Pierce; and Jacob Grant. Jack says the family is beginning to rent out space to local artists. In May, the gallery housed two artists, but Leonard Schmillen estimates it can accommodate as many as 25. As commitments accumulate, he says, he will renovate additional space. For now, the success of the gallery depends on how many artists utilize it.

“We’re trying to get shows here,” says Jeremiah, citing a May 17th fundraiser the gallery hosted for Whittier Grade School, in which students created and sold their drawings for $10 a piece. The family hopes the gallery will serve as a lifeboat for artists in the community at a time when other groups have cut back due to financial shortfalls and the loss of grant money. But there is no shortage of public interest, and artists are ever eager for exposure, a fact that prompted the Schmillens to consider the formation of a not-for-profit for the gallery.

The family has also considered using the gallery as a community center for art classes. “We’d like to start doing classes here for ceramics, screen printing and drawing,” says Jeremiah, noting that an art summer camp for kids is “a work in progress.”

Art has been a lifelong passion for both brothers, whose aunts and uncles have dabbled in the craft and whose parents have nurtured their children’s talent. Jack, a sculptor who works with ceramics, took art classes at Peoria Notre Dame and also attended Illinois Central College, while Jeremiah, whose interests include painting and ceramics, studied at Peoria High School and ICC. “Art was pretty much a childhood interest for both of us,” says Jack. “It’s something we’ve always enjoyed.”

For more information on The Meyer Block Fine Art Gallery and Studios, contact Jeremiah or Jack Schmillen at (309) 671-9450. a&s

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Comments

Recently we have had the pleasure of getting to know Jonathon Romain. He is the "real deal". Very generous in spirit, and an inspiration to every one around him - including me!

I agree that Jonathon is "real"; he inspires all who come into contact with him, especially his sons; they are quite the gentlemen.

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