Fine Arts Enshrined in Pekin

by Jonathan Wright

A magnificent old building gains new purpose as a center for arts and culture.

“Abraham Lincoln was president—the Civil War was going on when this building was built,” says Shannon Cox. “All of the woodwork in this part of the house is original, from 1862. It’s amazing to think about.”

We’re walking through one of the oldest buildings in Pekin: the spacious, well-kept Mansion on Walnut. The grandeur of the 11-room, Colonial-style structure at 420 Walnut Street is evident in the two-story pillars guarding its entrance like a temple, in the original crown moldings and woodwork within, in its half-dozen fireplaces and vintage chandelier sparkling overhead. It was built by Gideon H. Rupert (1799-1877), a wealthy banker and one of Pekin’s original settlers, who today is best remembered for naming Tazewell County after a senator from Virginia, his place of birth.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the property—which then encompassed an entire city block—was sold to Corn Products Refining Co. and used as a residence for the local plant manager. The building was purchased by Noel Funeral Home in 1939, and for nearly 75 years, through several changes of hands, it served that purpose. Today, this “hidden jewel” is home to a burgeoning arts academy and therapeutic programs for women—in addition to serving as a venue for weddings and other special events.

Programming the Arts
Besides coordinating those events as managing director of The Mansion on Walnut, Shannon Cox is the founder and executive director of Pekin Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), which found a new home in the stately old mansion last October. Incorporated in 2015, PAFA initially operated out of the Speakeasy Art Center in downtown Pekin, before some issues with the building spurred a move—“and everything fell into place here.”

Today, PAFA has transformed the mansion’s one-time garage into a hotbed of creativity—with crayons, paints and other art supplies scattered amidst children’s artwork in various stages of completion. The six-week “Young Artists” series is a cornerstone of its programming. It allows kids, ages five to 13, to explore a different medium in each class, and culminates with a reception and exhibit at the mansion. “We put their artwork up in the house,” Cox explains. “They bring their parents and grandparents… and we give them a little taste of what an exhibit is like.”

With support from Kiwanis, Rotary and numerous local businesses, PAFA is on a mission to “enrich the culture of our community through the arts,” offering classes for all ages, from toddler to adult. Its latest program booklet illustrates the diversity of these classes, encompassing everything from computer illustration and graphic design to essential oils and anime. “We are offering magic,” Cox adds. “We have a ‘Crafty Kids Club’—that’s a drop-in [class]. We just started a writing club. And Lego Club is a big hit—I think the dads have more fun than the kids!” she jokes.

Another class imparts the basics of 3D printing—a collaborative effort with the Pekin Public Library. “The library received a grant for a 3D printer, but the public doesn’t know how to use it,” Cox explains. “So we teach them… and then they can go over to the library.”

Seeking to instill the power of the arts in young people, PAFA also works with Pekin Public School District 108 on exhibits and programming. “They’ve been very supportive,” she says. “Because we’re a nonprofit, we can send our booklets home with the kids.” And through scholarships, PAFA attempts to make these opportunities accessible to children from low-income families—something Cox hopes to expand. “A lot of kids would take advantage of more opportunities if they could afford it,” she notes. “We are looking forward to offering more scholarships.”

Collaboration and Connection
Also located within these mansion walls is Crossroads Programs for Women, which offers counseling, life coaching and other therapeutic programs to help women experiencing depression, eating disorders, addictive behaviors, relationship issues, grief and loss, and other issues. Bonnie Harken, Crossroads founder and CEO, owns the building and was a supporter of Cox’s efforts in the arts community, offering assistance when she learned of PAFA’s need for space.

And the groups do more than share space—they are actually working together on a number of projects. “For instance, we did a ‘Tell Your Life in Art’ [program], combining art and therapy,” Cox notes. “Therapy can be hard to get people engaged, and sometimes when you put a different spin on it, it helps people feel more comfortable.”

In conjunction with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26 – March 4, 2017), the two groups are joining forces to host a photography exhibit that examines female body image. “The way women see themselves can be a big struggle,” Cox says. “We are going to have a small exhibit with two photographers… to bring recognition to eating disorders, as well as the art. We are starting to collaborate more and more.”

Not only does the partnership bring awareness to both organizations, as well as the critical issues at hand, it makes the building work. “It has to be a multi-use facility,” she explains. “If there was only one thing going, it would struggle. But having several things going on here makes it much easier.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Cox. At the Speakeasy, she worked hand in hand with downtown businesses and organizations on special events, festivals and development efforts. Having gotten to know the local community of artists, she has become a go-to person for the arts in Pekin. “People often come to me with ideas, and I have somehow gathered the resources to connect them,” she says. Last year, Cox worked with city government and others to update an ordinance in order to facilitate a new program to put murals on buildings. “Our leaders have been open-minded,” she adds. “They have embraced the arts in Pekin.”

Fourth Fridays and Beyond
The willingness to embrace the arts has brought great benefits for the city, Cox declares. “In the last several years, Pekin has come a long way. Culturally, artistically and economically, we have grown.”

And Cox has gone a long way toward connecting Pekin with the larger regional arts scene. In fact, it was a drive past the Gabbert Art Park in Peoria—where she witnessed a colorful display of public art—that inspired a phone call which eventually led her to arts advocates Doug and Eileen Leunig, who helped Cox bring the mural program to Pekin. “Peoria’s artists and arts leaders have really embraced me,” she notes. “Their support has been amazing.”

Participation in First Fridays, the monthly gallery and studio tour, has also been central to connecting the broader arts community. One problem, however, is that the participating artists are often tied up in their own studios and can’t get out to visit their peers. With that in mind, Mansion on Walnut is kicking off Fourth Fridays this February, Cox says, coinciding with the body image/photography exhibit. “Then in March, [painter/sculptor] Connie Andrews will be our first solo artist, and Rose Hubbard [of Jefferson Street Studio & Gallery] in Morton is going to do Fourth Fridays with me. That way the Peoria crowd may go to Morton, come over here and then go home.”

Besides building on the Fourth Friday concept, Cox and her board of directors, instructors and other PAFA supporters have plenty of ideas for the future. “We are looking to do some outside events this summer,” she says. “I envision something like the French market, shabby chic and art, on a smaller scale. We have talked about sculpture in the yard. We have also discussed some kind of outdoor summer camp.”

Through it all, Cox and the Pekin Academy of Fine Arts are successfully embedding the arts into the fabric of their community. “I think it’s good for our culture,” she notes. “Art is important for our health and well-being. It’s important for economic growth, and in my heart, it’s the base of everything.” a&s

To learn more about Pekin Academy of Fine Arts, visit pekinacademyoffinearts.com. For information on The Mansion on Walnut, visit mansiononwalnut.com.

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