Jonathon and Nikki Romain are on a mission to inspire and empower the community through the arts.
“As you can see, these rooms are priceless.” As the last beams of summer paint the chalkboard a golden yellow, Jonathon Romain ponders the room’s expansive height and points out the hardwood trim and built-in shelving. The artist/entrepreneur is walking us through the large school building he and his wife purchased earlier this year, contemplating the possibilities with contagious enthusiasm.
“These will be nice rooms for dance classes; they’re in great shape,” he notes. “This is like a turnkey operation—except we have to take care of the boiler, we have to get a wheelchair lift, and we have to make the bathrooms handicap-accessible.” He’s unphased, confident in his ability to make it all work.
“How’s the roof?” I inquire. “Good—it has eight years left on the warranty.” It’s been seven years since Greeley School in Peoria closed its doors for the last time, just shy of the red-brick building’s centennial birthday. Miraculously, neither time nor disuse seems to have taken much of a toll.
The adaptive reuse of shuttered school buildings is a significant challenge, and not just in Peoria. “Who else can use it?” Romain conjectures. “They really need to have a well thought-out plan. Or, they want to tear it down and develop. I mean, there’s not a lot of people coming through trying to buy a school.”
But Jonathon Romain is not most people. He’s a force of nature, exuding self-assurance. He set out to get this building four years ago—with a plan, a price and patience. He also has a track record that could convince even a natural skeptic.
A highly successful artist for more than two decades, Romain’s first studio/gallery was a modest 500 square feet, and he’s been expanding ever since. His current location on Sheridan Road is 30 times that size—and about one third the size of Greeley. “To go from nothing to this would be a challenge. But to go from 15,000 to 45,000 square feet is not much different than going from 4,000 to 15,000,” he suggests, recalling the poor condition of the Sheridan studio when he first moved in. “Dealing with that for 10 years prepares you for something like this. I already know what I have to do to make it work.”
As Romain takes on yet another monumental life challenge, he pauses for a moment. “Isn’t it nice?” he says proudly. “I think it’s nice, just in general. But man, for an artist… to have this kind of space?” he trails off. “There’s just so much charm in this building… so much we’re gonna be able to do.”
Greeley School, circa 1960. Jonathon and Nikki Romain purchased the school in January 2018 with the intention of turning it into a community arts center. Photo courtesy of Peoria Public Library Local History Collection
Onto Something Good
We head upstairs to the third-floor office of Nikki Romain, executive director of Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (ART, Inc.), the nonprofit she and her husband founded late last year. When Greeley reopens as a community arts center, she’ll oversee operations. She’s the yin to Jonathon’s yang, turning strangers into friends with a warm smile that makes you feel like you’ve known her forever.
But while Jonathon was renowned as an artist, not a lot of Peorians really knew Nikki Romain until recently. The couple’s purchase of Greeley School, their ambitious plans to transform it, and the opportunity to win a $25,000 grant from State Farm changed all that, placing them center stage in the community. As we sit down to chat, she lets us in on a secret: “We won the grant.”
The announcement had not yet been made—the excitement still fresh in their eyes, a welcome reward after multiple rounds of the competition culminated in an online vote by the general public. ART, Inc. was one of 200 neighborhood improvement projects vying for 40 grants—a remarkable assembly of ideas whittled down from 2,000 applicants across the country. Even the nomination itself was no sure thing: the application window opened at midnight and those 2,000 slots were gone by 7:00am. “Nikki was on it,” Jonathon says, full of praise for his wife.
“I literally stayed up until midnight,” she adds. “I had [the application] all filled out, and I just plugged it in.”
ART, Inc. was one of 200 neighborhood improvement projects vying for 40 grants from State Farm—a remarkable assembly of ideas whittled down from 2,000 applicants across the country. The $25,000 prize will help the Romains get the building up to code.
If success is where preparation and opportunity meet, the Romains might just have the magic touch. But they weren’t in this alone. “The community support was just pouring in,” Nikki notes with gratitude. There was a distinct buzz on social media and beyond as family and friends, caring citizens, loyal clients, friends of friends, acquaintances and others cast their daily votes. Peoria’s mayor and city council, the school district, artists and business leaders all offered encouragement.
“We had support from all over the country,” Jonathon adds. “And the way Peoria corralled behind us… without that, there’s no way we would have won.”
The $25,000 grant is a solid contribution toward getting the building up to code, but it’s far from the end of this tale. Realistically, it’s “like a drop in the bucket,” Nikki admits. More important than the money is the exposure,” Jonathon proposes. “You know, out of 100 people I told what we were doing, we had 100 excited people. When you get that kind of ratio, you know you're onto something good.”
Starting from Zero
The life story of Jonathon Romain might well become a movie someday. He’s not shy or unaware of its power—in fact, he’s been working on his autobiography for some 15 years now. Here in Peoria, the media has been telling his story for even longer.
“It was in prison where I had time to seriously work on my craft,” the artist told the Peoria Journal Star back in 1997. “Before that, I never thought that I was good enough to pursue art as a career.” His improbable climb to the top of his field is fascinating and rich with inspiration—a natural screenplay—which is why it’s been told and retold so many times. It’s why he’s been sought as a motivational speaker by high schools, Ivy League universities and multinational corporations alike. He can never be counted out, no matter how difficult the road ahead might appear.
Jonathon Romain’s first studio space—inside the Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Illinois
When he went to prison in 1990, Jonathon was different from most of his fellow inmates. A freshly-minted college graduate, he had just received his diploma from Bradley University. He was also “an extremely successful drug dealer,” he acknowledges, recounting the inexplicable chain of events which led him to the brink of disaster. He narrates the harrowing details with an ease that only comes in hindsight: the approach of police, the pursuit on foot through backyards, the hours of lying still in hiding, and finally, his apprehension—a week later, after still another foot chase.
“It’s so crazy,” Nikki says, shaking her head. No doubt she’s heard the story many times before—still it beckons disbelief.
Jonathon spent his senior year at Bradley dealing with the fallout of his arrest, even as he finished up his psychology degree. Two weeks prior to graduation, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. “They let me bond out to graduate,” he adds. “Then I had to turn myself in.” If this incongruous outcome was the end of his youth, it was also the beginning of something much bigger.
Are artists born or made? For Jonathon Romain, the answer is both. He drew pictures as a kid, but never took it seriously—he even failed a painting course at Bradley, he notes with a laugh. But prison, for all of its hardships, offered a unique gift: time. Time to reflect, to practice, to reinvent himself. He also found support for his rehabilitation. A fellow inmate—a gifted artist—took him under his wing; a sympathetic warden allowed him to set up a small studio. And Jonathon thrived. Even before his release, he was already selling his artwork. “There was no turning back,” he explains. “That was the beginning of my career.”
After five years behind bars, he returned to Peoria on a two-year work release program, performing maintenance around the work release center. “Everything was broken,” he recalls. “I can't tell you how much I learned in the year I was there, just fixing stuff around this raggedy building.”
This experience would prove invaluable throughout his life, but maintenance work was just a bridge to his true calling. In late 1995, just months out of prison, the fledgling artist opened his first gallery/studio in a tiny storefront on Sheridan, a block from his current location. “I went in and put up my artwork. I couldn’t afford to frame it, but I was so excited, so proud of myself,” he explains. “Then when I opened up the doors, nobody came.” It was his first lesson in business: “just because you’ve got brick-and-mortar doesn’t mean you’ve got a business.”
So Jonathon Romain learned to sell himself. He tapped his contacts. He worked the phone. He cold-called galleries—“anything I could figure out.” Rejection only fueled his fire. He soon turned a prominent gallery owner into a regular client, then spent a decade in Chicago building his reputation. He opened a gallery in Oak Park, then in Wicker Park. He earned prominent commissions, made TV appearances and sold his work at shows across the country. Eventually, the low cost of living attracted him back to Peoria.
If anyone is a model for the social reintegration of former convicts, it’s Jonathon Romain. But set prison aside and his journey is still remarkable—a case study in resilience for struggling individuals everywhere. “If you want to get somewhere and you’re starting from zero,” says Nikki Romain, “this is the guy.”
Nikki Romain in her solo show, Lost and Found, a poignant one-woman play which tackled profound issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and attempted suicide.
Saved By the Arts
Nikki Romain has her own inspiring story to tell. The Chicago-born performer moved around a lot as a kid, from Chicago to Atlanta to Dallas, changing schools almost every year. Her “nomadic upbringing” was formative—not only did it develop her “fierce social skills,” it offered the same gift her husband found in prison: time. Time to discover her identity, to develop her imagination, to learn how to express herself. “The arts saved my life as a teenager,” she proclaims.
“I was always singing,” Nikki says of her first love. Her introduction to theater was spurred by a favorite high school teacher—and her reluctant audition for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat proved successful. “That was it! I got the bug, and I was hooked.” She majored in theater at Columbia College Chicago before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. She performed in musicals and theatrical productions, did voiceovers, and landed roles in indie films and commercials before returning to her hometown Chicago. “And then I met this guy,” she laughs, giving her husband a playful nudge.
They were introduced at one of Jonathon’s art shows—she couldn’t help but be moved by his story, “and I didn’t even know everything yet,” Nikki adds. Magnifying the power of his artwork was its fusion to a higher purpose. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I want to do,’” she smiles. “We just started talking. And from there, he [said], ‘Well, let's do this as a couple.’”
“We just merged together effortlessly,” Jonathon affirms. “It was seamless.”
Nikki had her own creative ambitions, based on her own life’s adversities. Confronting traumas she’d long kept hidden, she developed Lost and Found—a poignant one-woman play which tackled profound issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and attempted suicide. “It was my first time really talking about these issues,” she explains. “Just being able to tell that story was so empowering.”
Her new partner soon signed on to produce her solo show. “I thought the same [approach] that I used to propel me with painting… could propel her to where she wanted to be with theater,” Jonathon explains. He was correct: Lost and Found was an artistic and commercial success, selling out the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. Perhaps they’ll bring it back someday, Nikki muses. After all, they now have a stage of their own at Greeley School.
As she describes the whirlwind of events that brought her to central Illinois, she chuckles. “Peoria? I didn’t even know Peoria existed,” she says, only half-joking. “I’m a city girl… I’ve only lived in big cities. But you know… I trusted in the vision.”
That vison is now coming into full view—an elaborate and magnificent plan to offer life-changing opportunities to others. “We want to connect people through the arts,” Nikki declares, noting again how the arts have shaped her own life. “We want people from all different backgrounds coming here, working together and learning about each other’s story,” she adds. “Because everybody has a story.”
The vision for ART, Inc. has been in Jonathon Romain’s head for years. When he opened his gallery on Sheridan Road in 2009, he told the Journal Star’s Gary Panetta all about it: “[Romain] visualizes his gallery becoming a center for classes and projects and visits by school kids—all of which will have something to do with urging young people, especially young people inclined to give up on themselves, to pursue education and self-improvement.”
“Everything we’re going to do [at Greeley], I had anticipated doing there,” Jonathon confirms. But as large as that space was, it was quickly swallowed up by his own sprawling body of work: a sea of canvases, paints, frames and mouldings. “There just wasn't enough room, so I kind of put it on the backburner.” Nearly a decade later, he’s circled back to that vision. “When this opportunity presented itself, I had everything already in place.”
The potential Greeley holds as a community arts center is limited only by the availability of resources; there’s certainly no shortage of ideas. “We want to do dance classes, language arts—Mandarin, Spanish, French… and theater,” Nikki says, summarizing an eclectic array of proposals. “The visual arts, of course. STEAM classes. And music. We're working on a partnership with Youth Music Illinois… and we're in talks about doing the Suzuki method.”
Alongside more traditional classes, the Romains plan to host “one-and-dones”—short, creative projects that can be completed in a day. Though primarily focused on youth, they envision programs for adults as well—“from pottery to yoga,” Nikki suggests, whatever attracts a critical mass of interest. There’s potentially space for artist studios and even room for other arts organizations, “so they can be a part of the energy going on in the building.”
Having spent decades developing his own career, Jonathon hopes to pay his knowledge forward. “I want to work with artists and show them: look, you don't have to be a Michelangelo… but you can make a living doing this.” He’s searching for the ones who are as hungry as he was, who are willing to work hard and think differently, who want to expand their base. “When you’re painting, you’re an artist. When you put the brush down, you’re a businessperson,” he declares, laying out an impassioned case for creative self-reliance.
“No gallery is going to sustain your livelihood,” he continues. “You can't expect a gallery or an agent or a representative to do for you what you can do for yourself.” Being tech-savvy is important, he adds, “but it's less important than actually getting out there and putting your art in front of people.”
Beyond the arts, the Romains simply want to help kids get off the streets and push them in a positive direction. “At the end of the day, I don't really care about turning kids into artists,” Jonathon admits. “My objective is to use art to bait them in, then give them some life-building skills.”
True to form, they aren’t waiting around to make their dreams happen. “We're hitting the ground running, even before this building is open,” Nikki explains. ART, Inc. is currently in three Peoria public schools, offering arts and fitness classes at Glen Oak, Trewyn and Manual Academy—with much more to come. “This is just the beginning,” Jonathon offers.
A Sustained Impact
The Romains hope to open the new arts center next summer. Over time, they plan to add colorful sculptures, murals and an urban garden to the revitalized property. It won’t be easy, but they’ve already overcome some significant hurdles—from the years of negotiation it took to buy the school, to the zoning issues, which required the Peoria City Council to approve a special use permit. “All of that just made us more resilient,” Jonathon says.
They know all about the difficulty in bringing such a massive structure back to life—and they’re aware of Peoria’s not-so-strong track record of revitalizing former school buildings. There’s a lot of money yet to raise, a lot of elbow grease to be expended, and some in the community remain skeptical. Besides fixing the boiler and making the building handicap-accessible, “the utilities alone may be $5,000 [or more] a month,” Jonathon notes. But if anyone can make it happen, it’s these two. And they’ve already mitigated a number of potential challenges to their plans.
“We’ve already started programming,” Nikki says. “We're already out there getting the kids used to us.” The couple’s heightened visibility has paid dividends as well. “We’ve got so many things working in our favor,” Jonathon adds. “We’re coming in with the good grace of our community. The mayor is on board; the city councilmen and women are on board.”
It’s no wonder so many are lending their support—and not just because it’s a grassroots effort from a magnetic pair of natural leaders who’ve paid their dues, put skin in the game, and proven successful in the past. While their plans can flexibly adapt to demand, their primary focus is unquestioned. Time and again, they return to the power of mentoring.
Far too many youth in our community are in need of adults who believe in their potential—who can serve as role models and guide them on a path toward success. Jonathon has long used his life story as a motivational tool, but this project takes it to a whole other level. “Everyone needs a positive outlet,” Nikki explains. “This school will help him to have a sustained impact on these kids.”
As the excitement of the successful grant gives way to the long road ahead, the Romains are already hard at work, making it happen. And with the support of their community, their vision is well within reach. a&s