When I first moved to the Midwest and began settling into my new home in Peoria, I was immediately captured by the growing art community. Being a part of academia for so long, I had not yet lived somewhere with an arts community that developed outside of a university or college. I attended my first First Friday in Peoria, a local event with gallery crawls, studio visits, and openings, meeting so many people pursuing their passion in this city. The variety of artists at various points in their career, doing so many different things, truly astounded me. There were local artisans creating wares and goods for the community, artists making a living off of their work by selling at fairs and local businesses, academics making their work and passing their knowledge on to their pupils, artists maintaining a studio practice and taking advantage of all of the space and resources in the community, and those who were new, attending their first events and figuring out their voice in the art-ecosystem. The variety of people working in such a diverse range of practices, and supporting each other whilst doing so, expanded my view of the art world.
After moving to Peoria in 2014, the community has only grown as the arts community broadens its reach. Since then, several organizations have formed, one being the Emerging Artists Collective (EAC), founded by a small group of artists in 2016. After talking to founding member Blair Jeffers, I learned the true beginnings of the organization. The genesis of EAC actually stems from the 2015 exhibition Unseen Voices, an exhibition that was geared towards the needs of early career artists in the community, and grew in an effort to nurture the momentum that was started by this gathering. The initial social assemblies of the group expanded and began to include critiques and artists talks, later becoming Emerging Artists Collective.
What was so wonderful about this group was the variety of people that were creating a warm and welcoming environment. There was no hierarchy, no one artist better than another. Everyone, no matter where they were in their career, shared knowledge and camaraderie. I have always felt it unfair that some of the knowledge I have acquired during my studies is only available through academia. This group educates each other to promote growth and a welcoming arts community that does not discriminate.
Continuing on this path of growth, EAC organized an exhibition to be held at the gallery space in the Peoria Public Library Main Branch downtown. One of the group’s members, SJ Boyd, was the initial contact with the library. A year prior to the opening, he came to a meeting with the news that he had a space for the group to exhibit in a year. For many in the group, it would be their first time showing in a gallery space or presenting their work in a public manner. Considering the vast amount of members in the organization, as well as the plethora of voices, the collective decided to use a polling system to select the theme. Through this, everyone got to make suggestions and participate in narrowing down the large variety of topics brought to the table. After voting, they decided on the theme of mental health for the exhibition, something topical that most folks can relate to in some way. Many voted for this theme because it was not only a broad topic to work within, but everyone had their own relationship with it as well. It gave an opportunity for education and awareness. After this decision, the artists began working and, after many months, the exhibition titled Piece of Mind came to fruition.
Piece of Mind is a wonderful representation of the collective efforts of a growing arts community. Upon walking down the stairs to the gallery space, I was received by a large crowd bustling about and walls that were filled with a variety of textures, colors, and materials. The gallery, being located just off the main floor of the library, attracted a wide audience. The many artists represented in the show had friends, family, and the like in attendance, but being in such an open and easily accessible public space, the show drew in many of the locals who frequent the library. Painting, sculpture, photography, interactive works—so varied were the pieces on display, one might think that a common thread would be impossible to find. Yet the pieces shown all worked together, guiding the viewer through an extremely varied visual experience. Dealing with the topic of mental health, Piece of Mind shares a broad view into the artists’ perspectives with the subject. From very personal work representing trauma, growth, and emotional weights, to pieces made for understanding, each piece shows that we are not alone in our internal struggles. With over thirty artists represented, the show was cohesive and unified. There was a deliberate flow to the exhibition and connectivity between the works. It could be that the theme allowed the work connect, or perhaps the diversity of the work gave the exhibition its flow, giving cohesion through variety. Emerging Artists Collective member Peggy West, who helped with curation and installation, said that “the variety of moods and messages made [install] easy,” and that the install “came naturally.”
Peggy West was one of the many members who worked to hang this large collection of works and, having a formal background in museum studies, has experience doing this kind of work. Some artists who worked the install, however, had never installed an exhibition of this magnitude before. Being involved in the Emerging Artists Collective provided these artists the chance to learn a valuable skill from other members who have experience with this sort of work, reinforcing the group’s mission.
For Jaci Musec, a local artist and administrator of the Emerging Artists Collective, Piece of Mind was her first curatorial experience. Musec was fascinated by how much placement affected a piece and how conversations began forming between the works once installed. This is what makes EAC, as well as this exhibition, so important to Peoria: the shared knowledge, accessibility, and growth of a community. The voices that come together in this exhibition to carry important messages of mental health and awareness, as well as the members of EAC who have supported each other in bringing this message to the community, are a true testament to the grassroots efforts currently happening in Peoria. If you want to see this exhibition, it is up until February 28th at the Peoria Public Library Main Branch.
Featured Image: A view of Piece of Mind during the opening reception showing visitors examining the work at the exhibition. A variety of work is shown hanging on the wall. Photo by Alexander Martin.
Alexander Martin is an artist living and working in Peoria, IL. Co-Founder of Project 1612, an , an independent art space and short-term residency program. He makes work dealing with the intersection of his queer and black identities. Follow him on Instagram: @xander9210 or Project 1612 @Project1612