Prairie Center of the Arts

Serving Industry to Artists
by Amy Groh
Photography by Rick Kessinger, David Joel, and Cecil McDonald, with additional contributions from Prairie Center of the Arts

A Historic Location

One hundred and twenty years ago, Edward Heidrich moved his rope and twine company from Ohio to Peoria, establishing the Peoria Cordage Company at 1506 SW Washington Street. In 1974, Joe and Michele Richey and Joe’s brother, Dan, purchased the 90,000-square-foot building and set up Tri-City Machine Products, Inc., a full-service machine shop.

Today, in this same historic building, the Prairie Center of the Arts now resides, alongside its industrial counterpart. The lower level houses the machine shop, with offices and the Prairie Center’s 4,500-square-foot gallery located at the street level. The two levels above are dedicated to the storage of Tri-City machine parts, as well as studio and large installation spaces for the Prairie Center of the Arts.

The Peoria Cordage building was originally two separate buildings, constructed with enough room in between for railroad cars. The cars would be driven between the two, unloading raw materials and loading the rope and twine made at the factory. A façade was later added on to the front, making the two buildings appear to be one.

What Could Be

Joe and Michele Richey have big dreams for their historic building, which may come true once plans for the revitalization of Peoria’s Warehouse District become a reality. The Richeys would like to offer living and working space for resident artists of a wide range of mediums, rom painters and potters to writers and composers. The building could also house retail components, specifically arts-related businesses, as well. With their vision of the Prairie Center as the southern anchor of the Warehouse District, the Richeys hope to contribute to an exciting renovation of a formerly blighted area.

Because of the abundance of space in the Cordage building, the Prairie Center of the Arts wants to cater to artists who need large open spaces for installations. Some artists don’t even care if anyone sees it, as long as they can install and take pictures,” Michele said. Combined living and studio space would also attract more artists to the residency program, especially those without personal transportation.

The Richeys

Joe and Michele Richey knew each other in high school back in Springfield, later moving to Peoria. Joe received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his MBA and MS in industrial operations from Bradley University; Michele received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Bradley. Upon graduation,
Joe taught marketing at Bradley for four years, which kept the couple in Peoria. The Richeys have six children, four of whom also graduated from Bradley.

Together, the Richeys started Tri-City Machine Products, Inc. in 1972 as a “custom-job shop,” as Joe put it. Offering manufacturing services to large industry doing precision machining and mechanical repair, their facilities host a wealth of computerized machines and engineering design software, such as Pro/E and AutoCAD.

It Began with a Book

The journey which led to the creation of the Prairie Center of the Arts began when the Richeys discovered a book entitled Artists Communities: A Directory of Residencies that offer Time and Space for Creativity. Published by the Alliance of Artists Communities, the book catalogs the numerous artist residency programs that make up the Alliance’s network, detailing locations, contact information and eligibility requirements and listing former resident artists and the unique amenities (housing, food, transportation, etc.) provided by each program. The book includes several essays about residency opportunities in general and the Alliance itself, as well as personal testimonials from artists who have participated in residency programs in the past.

This book was an eye-opener for the Richeys. While on a business trip in North Carolina, the couple drove to Penland School of Crafts to tour its residency program. That experience, coupled with the information found in Artists Communities, led the Richeys to decide that this was something they could do in Peoria. Their vision for the Prairie Center also dovetailed with the New Urbanism movement which has slowly, but surely, taken hold in the River City.

New Urbanism is a design movement which emphasizes aesthetically-pleasing architecture; mixed-use buildings with a combination of residential, commercial and industrial components; the feeling of a traditional neighborhood; and a high quality of life. “Other cities have art better integrated into city life,” Joe explains. “If you go to other cities, you don’t go to [their version of] University Street, do you? You go down to the older parts of town. You go down to see what’s different, what’s unusual, what’s antique, what’s renovated; but because we’re in Peoria every day, we don’t necessarily see that. People who come here are looking for those things. Well, they don’t find them as well as they do in Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or St. Louis.”

Collaboration is Key

“We are an industrial section of town, and we embrace the fact that we’re still industrial because we can provide industrial services and commercial operations in this building to accommodate artists,” said Michele Richey. That concept is an important element of the Prairie Center of the Arts and its unique operations.

When Joe and Michele began their endeavor, they weren’t exactly sure how it would work. “It’s not an easy path; it’s more of a ‘let’s see what happens’ path,” offered Michele. “We want the residency to kind of fold into whatever’s happening in this building.”

When the Prairie Center offered its first residency program, only artists working in the areas of drawing, painting and sculpture were accepted. Today, the Center seeks artists who can make artistic use of the sophisticated industrial equipment housed by Tri-City Machine. Paul Catanese was one artist who applied for a residency specifically because of the equipment that would be available to him. Several previous residents had no plans to use the equipment, but did end up taking advantage of it.

When artists of certain mediums—glass and ceramics, for example—graduate from school, they often lose access to the large, expensive equipment necessary for the creation of their art. To this end, the Richeys hope to eventually build a hot shop—a building set aside for art requiring extreme-temperature ovens and large cooling rooms—in a separate building on the property surrounding the Cordage building. As Michele pointed out, not too many people would want to put glass-blowing equipment or pottery kilns in their basements, let alone be able to afford it. This equipment and space will be accessible to the community as well.

Prairie Center OF the Arts

When naming their non-profit artist-in-residency organization, the Richeys took their time and chose their words carefully. They chose Prairie Center of the Arts, as opposed to for the Arts, emphasizing the organization’s focus on works in progress. “We are not cheerleaders for the arts—we produce art. The residents actually work and create or compose things,” Joe noted.

He said the Prairie Center seeks artists “who we can interface with technology. We bring artists here who have some maturity in what they do.” The Center applies a juried process to determine which artists are selected for residencies. All artists must complete an application and a letter of intent, and jurors—local artists of all mediums who are knowledgeable in their fields—then help the Richeys determine which applicants make the best fits for residency positions at the Prairie Center.

The Residency Experience

As its website proclaims, the Center’s “artist-in-residence program [provides] artists from around the world the resources and uninterrupted time to think and create. ‘Artist’ is used in its broadest meaning so as to indicate traditional art forms such as ceramics, printmaking, photography, drawing, painting, sculpture and design, as well as installation and conceptual artists, writers and poets, architects and others who envision and change the world through their creative intellect.”

The Prairie Center of the Arts belongs to the Alliance of Artists Communities, which uses certain criteria to determine
whether a particular residency will be accepted as one of theirs. Deborah Obalil, editor and executive director of the Alliance, lists these criteria in the Artists Communities directory:
1. Artists’ communities are professionally-run organizations that provide dedicated time and space for creative work.
2. Artists are “in residence” for a specified period of time; whether two weeks or two years, the time period is generally predetermined and the residency is not meant to be endless.
3. Residencies are provided at no cost to the artists, or are heavily subsidized by other revenue sources, thus offering significant financial support to artists.

Obalil continues, “These factual criteria are all superseded by the philosophical ties that bind this field together. First and foremost is belief in the creative process and trust in the artist. While residency programs are tremendously diverse in how they nurture the creative process, the fundamental intention of all artists’ communities is to provide a supportive environment for experimentation, innovation, collaboration, and, within all of that, failure.”

Obalil notes that “the exchange of ideas is also at the heart of any artists’ community. Most residency programs bring a number of creative individuals together in a setting that encourages conversation, collaboration and sharing of perspectives.”

It is recognized that not all artists will walk away from their residency with a manuscript, collection of paintings or drawings, or a symphony composition. Artists often use their time to brainstorm new ideas and fill notebooks with sketches and descriptions of pieces to flesh out at a later date.

At Home in Germantown Hills

“What we want to do is engage our artists here with artists coming in from somewhere else. They go into seclusion, so to speak, and we don’t interrupt. And from that, we ask them to give something back to the community—a talk, a lecture, a reception—to show their work, to talk about their work,” Michele said. The Richeys view the engagement
of resident artists in the Peoria community as an important part of their time here. After all, the Richeys’ goal in creating the Prairie Center was to bring art that could be enjoyed by all of Peoria.

Resident artists from outside the area stay at the Prairie Center’s residence in Germantown Hills. The house has five bedrooms: two are suites with private baths, the others share a larger bathroom. Each room has a queen-sized bed and access to washers and dryers. The house has two living spaces, a main kitchen, small kitchenette, three-seasons room, dining room, patio and a deck, along with an attached two-car garage.

The average resident spends anywhere from two weeks to three months at the Prairie Center. Last summer, the Center had six artists in residence—the most they have ever hosted at one time. Two of those artists lived in the area, while the other four lived at the house in Germantown Hills.

“They come individually and become a group, and that is part of what this is all about,” Michele noted. “You get artists together, and even though they are doing their own private work, they are interacting together…you have a composer interacting with a painter and with a printmaker. They all say, when they leave these places, that the interaction among the group was so beneficial. To talk to somebody who is an artist outside their own field gives them new insight.”

Artists who stay at the residence have access to nearly 60 acres of land and have found that the tranquility of the space makes it very conducive to getting their work done. One resident said that the layout of the house facilitates as much distraction as one wants: “You can run into people at the house, or not; there’s tons of room.”

Merging Industry and Art

Resident Artist Paul Catanese
Watch videos and view his artwork at paulcatanese.com!

Paul Catanese, a hybrid media artist from San Francisco, spent two months in residency at the Prairie Center last year and loved every minute of it. After a presentation he gave as part of Bradley University’s Visual Voices lecture series, he was approached by the Richeys, who suggested he apply for a residency. For Catanese, the industrial machinery to which he would have access, as well as the master machinists who knew the ins and outs of each, were the main attractions.

“I just needed to shut the world out and focus on what was right in front of me,” mused Catanese, “so the Prairie Center residency was a nice transition from this hunkered-down mode to telling people about what it is I think I’m doing.” During his time at the Prairie Center, Catanese focused on printmaking, working with Tri-City machinist Roy Grampp to create the plates from which his prints are made and collaborating with Oscar Gillespie, Bradley’s master printmaker, to make the prints.

Sounds from Silence

The house in Germantown Hills currently provides the quiet solitude that resident composer John Orfe needs to create great music.

Resident Composer John Orfe
Listen to some of John Orfe's compositions in mp3 format...

Last September, Orfe began what was to be a three-month residency; later, he arranged to stay through the academic year.

During his residency, Orfe is composing a full version of a chamber symphony—a substantial, 18-minute work—as well as a guitar-and-saxophone duet commissioned by the Montagnard Foundation. He said the residency provides the time he needs to give the piece the attention it requires, describing it as “a very euphoric thing!” While in Peoria, he makes the most of his time here, participating in various community events and performances.

Orfe’s residency is different from Catanese’s in that Orfe works primarily at the residence on a digital piano called a Clavinova. An average day for him consists of two work periods between five and seven hours each. He spends each morning “scribbling away for a five-hour period—minimum.” After running errands and doing other miscellaneous tasks, Orfe works for a second period of at least six hours. He said, “While I have perfect pitch, I find it helpful to physically work it out on the keyboard.”

What Lies Ahead

From its low-key origins, the Prairie Center of the Arts is contributing magnificently to our local arts community—and its best days almost certainly lie ahead. As the revitalization of the Warehouse District moves forward, the Richeys and their “labor of love” are ready and waiting, with big goals and grand aspirations. Peoria is surely a better place for their unique vision. a&s

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