Pressing Onward, Into the Community

by Beth Knapinski

The Prairie Center of the Arts offers new initiatives in book arts, printmaking and letterpressing.

An anchor at the southern end of Peoria’s Warehouse District since 2003, the Prairie Center of the Arts is “a place where ideas grow, projects come to life and things get done.” This philosophy encapsulates not just the Prairie Center, but the history of the building it calls home, as well as the organization’s future.

Renewing a Mission
In 1974, Joe and Michele Richey and Joe’s brother, Dan, opened Tri-City Machine Products, Inc., a full-service machine shop in the historic Peoria Cordage Company building on Washington Street. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the nearly century-old, 140,000-square-foot building far exceeded the needs of the business, and the Richeys began researching what they could do with the rest of the vast space. “We [asked ourselves] what could we do with it, and what would the objective be?” Michele recalls.

The answer materialized during a trip to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, an international center for craft education that offers residencies for artists. There, the Richeys discovered Artists Communities: A Directory of Residencies That Offer Time and Space for Creativity, a book highlighting artist residency programs around the country. Its pages showed similar large, older buildings and warehouses being transformed into artist studios, galleries and space for residency programs. All of these things culminated in the establishment of the Prairie Center of the Arts in 2003.

Aside from better utilizing the building’s space, Michele Richey explains the objective in creating the Prairie Center was to “be more interactive with the community [and] bring different perspectives to Peoria—for these artists to interact with other artists and start conversations.”

Dawn Gettler, a former resident artist and now the Prairie Center’s program director, moved from Chicago to Peoria for the residency program, noting it has attracted talented individuals from all over the country. “The Prairie Center has a very good reputation outside of Peoria,” she notes. “A lot of successful people have gone through here.”

While the residency program has been a pillar of Peoria’s arts scene for more than a decade, both the Richeys and Gettler recognized a lingering gap in interacting with the local community—a core part of the Prairie Center’s original mission. Now, they seek to close that gap with an exciting, new initiative.

A Vision Comes to Life
Last summer, through the process of reevaluating their mission, they decided to open a community book arts and printmaking facility, offering classes and workshops for locals. “We readdressed our mission of giving back to the community and getting them more involved,” Gettler explains. “Residents would come and go, but the community wouldn’t often get the chance to meet them.”

With the encouragement of Bradley University professor and resident printer Robert Rowe, the Richeys had already begun collecting old printmaking machines, letterpresses and type from auctions and dealers, yet the majority sat disassembled and unused. Last spring, they asked Rowe, who started a book arts program at Bradley several years ago, to help clean and assemble the machines, and the Prairie Center’s vision of a community press came to life.

In the fall, the Prairie Center held a “soft opening” for its new initiative, hosting classes like Intro to Relief Printmaking and Beginning Letterpress Printing. In addition to creating a final piece of work, these classes exposed participants to the techniques and mechanics of the press, and because they were capped at 10 participants, each person had ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with the equipment. “We hope to grow our clientele with the beginners moving through the process to where they become very adept at printing,” says Joe Richey. “You may find that some go further and further, while others just want to make a birthday card, Christmas card or wedding invitation.”

With one new resident having already relocated to Peoria to participate in the program, Gettler notes the uniqueness of this service in the arts community. “It shows the need for this type of equipment and this type of studio.” She adds that printmaking and letter pressing are difficult to sustain outside of academia, due to the high cost of access to the necessary tools and equipment.

With its new focus on printmaking and the book arts, the Prairie Center hopes more artists will begin to incorporate the press in their work. But these resources are not just for resident artists, they are offered in a renewed commitment to the community at large.

Connecting With History
Just as the Prairie Center is housed in a historic building, it’s hoped the new initiative will connect locals to the past, as it features presses from a variety of historic eras. One was used to make old English bulletins; another once sat in the state registrar’s office in Springfield. The facility includes numerous Vandercook letterpresses, a Dameco etching press, an assortment of metal type stored in large wooden cabinets, various paper cutters and a range of other small presses.

With the ubiquitous nature of technology today, some might wonder about the viability of such “old-fashioned” equipment. Rowe explains that people are attracted to printmaking and letter pressing for its personal touch. “Printmaking is making a revival because people get tired of the monotony and uniformity of the computer,” he says. “People like to feel the press and texture of the print on the paper.”

With its new community press, the Prairie Center of the Arts is opening up the grand tradition of book arts and printmaking to the entire community. “It’s not just a place where these presses come to be looked at, but to be used—to keep the tradition going,” Gettler says. “To keep something historical and desired going—and giving people access to it—is pretty exciting.” a&s

For more information, visit prairiecenterofthearts.org or call (309) 657-6064.

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