Peoria Women of Influence: The Visual Arts in Retrospect
Fifty-three years ago, I arrived in Peoria. In 1968, as I started in the School of Art at Bradley University, equality was just one groundswell in the upheaval of the times. Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique had ushered in the feminist movement, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 called for equal rights for women. Here in Peoria, phenomenal women were leading the way in the arts—and they continue to do so today.
Nita Sunderland was Bradley’s only female art professor at that time, but in truth, she wasn’t equal—she possessed superior skills as a sculptor and teacher. She could work her way around any foundry, any quarry and any male, artist or not. Her influence on all of us was tremendous. You either survived her strict rules and critical lessons, or not. After one year under her tutelage, I dumped my penny loafers, skirts and makeup and replaced them with jeans, tools, books and a greater focus on being an artist.
Women leaders, including Sally Page, Helen Clark, Mary Schwab, Marjorie Schwebel, Mary Pratt and Joan French, had helped open the doors of Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1965. The Peoria Art Guild at that time was located in the Lakeview facilities, until differences in the appreciation and understanding of contemporary art became overbearing. In 1968, Esther Cohen, Adelaide Cooley, Norma Kottemann, Carol Fiske, Peg Kronenberg and Nita helped arrange a clandestine move of the Guild—lock, stock and art—to a new facility on Knoxville Avenue. A phenomenal artist, Jan Jensen, was chosen as the first director.
LaVerne Fromberg was a New York artist who moved to Peoria in the 1950s so her husband Gerald could fill a position at Bradley. LaVerne—a busy mother to Robert, Paul and Steve—continued making art while teaching at the Art Guild and at Lakeview Museum. In 1973, she became the first curator of education at Lakeview, infusing children and adults alike with a lifelong love of art. She hired me to teach in her programs and helped me succeed her as curator of education after her retirement in 1977. She continued painting until her death in 1980. That same year, I became a mother and George Ann Danehower took over as curator of education. Lakeview’s arts and science programs soared to new heights. A few years later, she was made chair of the museum’s board of directors.
Juliette Whittaker came to Peoria in the 1940s to work as director of drama and fine arts at the Carver Community Center. A writer, dramatist, set designer, educator and artist, she could do anything and encouraged all children to think the same of themselves. When I met her, she was a member of the Art Guild board and founder of The Learning Tree school—and I quickly learned that she was a most experienced and amazing arts entrepreneur and educator. When Carver’s theater budget shrank, she responded by creating puppets and miniature stages, teaching the children to string the puppets and design their costumes. Her artwork was rich and endless, but you may know her best as a vitally important mentor to Richard Pryor.
Artist and writer Channy Lyons devoted her second career to celebrating, documenting, writing and talking about women artists. She founded the Illinois Women Artists Project as a unique repository for the work and experiences of Illinois women artists, past and present, and at every turn encouraged us to fulfill our potential as artists. Her weekly radio program on WCBU, Hidden Treasures, led many of today’s women artists to work together and make our mark on the community.
Partnerships of Influence
Joan Ericksen, along with her husband Bob, have influenced generations of artists and children through Art & Science in the Woods and the Sun Foundation’s educational arts and science programs. I met Joan in 1974 when they were first starting up. Influenced by the visionary architect and designer Buckminster Fuller, they had built a geodesic dome on their Washburn farm, but it needed to be roofed. I had previously helped build a dome in Mapleton with some friends, and one of those friends and I were hired to help. On a very hot and humid summer day, we drove to Washburn and roofed Joan and Bob’s dome, which still stands today. Joan’s influence is outsized in all ways—she is now working with the grandchildren of the first campers from Art & Science in the Woods.
Artists need studios in which to work, opportunities to convene for thoughtful discourse, and a place to display their art. Michele Richey and her husband Joe are two of the most influential arts advocates in Peoria—the driving force behind establishing the Prairie Center of the Arts in their warehouse facilities on SW Washington Street in 2003. The enormous, historic former rope factory was turned into studios and gallery space for a wide range of artists to further their creative endeavors. Every artist, writer and musician in the area was influenced in some way by their support and knowledge, while many from out of state have remained in Peoria because of that experience. Community development through the arts was a primary driver; the Richeys accomplished this goal—and so much more.
There is a long history of women artists forming groups to discuss, critique, exhibit and share studio space. In 1979, Wendy Hatch, Bradley’s printmaking professor, knew her women students and artists had difficulty finding the equipment and studio space necessary to continue their creative output, so she she helped us form Artistudio. The following year we formally organized as a not-for-profit, and the group expanded and grew over time. Some moved away, some passed away, but the fundamental goal of supporting one another held true, even after we eventually dissolved as an organization. Maryruth Ginn, George Ann Danehower, Barbara Melcher, Laura Simpson-Boyle, Carol Hill, Pam R. Myers, Mary P.D. Heintzman, Betty Meyers, Donna L. Janssen, Constance Taylor-Ohlrich, Duffy Mischance and Wendy Hatch were pictured in one of our first group images in 1979.
From this group, some of the most influential women going forward were Maryruth Ginn and George Ann Danehower. Maryruth taught in area schools and influenced not only her students, but multiple women artists until her untimely passing in 2015. She fearlessly tried her hand at everything, and even made a number of YouTube videos we still can enjoy today. She and Dana Baldwin, daughter of George Ann Danehower, established The Sheared Edge at The Studios on Sheridan. “Maryruth’s main goal was to educate people about fiber art,” Baldwin notes. “She showed off cutting-edge fiber work from around the world and encouraged everyone to try on her own creations.”
Maryruth loved to see her former students, like Connie Andrews, grow and succeed as artists. “She always encouraged me to go the distance and dig a little deeper to come up with something strong,” Andrews recalls. “She could remember students from years ago and talk to them like no time had passed.” Soon after we lost her, the City of Peoria honored Maryruth with a street sign near her home at the corner of Main and Flora.
Carrying the Torch
Moving forward, the influence of women in the visual arts is in very capable hands, from Jessica Bingham, who formed Project 1612, to Jessica Ball, who started the Art Garage, to Nikki Romain, who established Art Inc. with her husband Jonathon. Eileen Leunig and husband Doug, who together formed Big Picture Initiative, are integral figures in the local arts scene, as is Mae Gilliland Wright, who recently took the reins as Big Picture’s first executive director. Jenny Hawkey and Trish Williams have taken the lead along with Dana Baldwin for quilting and fiber arts, while Kristan McKinsey has used her extensive curatorial experience to take up the mantle of Channy’s Illinois Women Artists Project.
Strong women leaders are also in place at the Peoria Art Guild and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, and among the leadership at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and elsewhere. We are grateful for the rich legacy and promising future of women in the arts in central Illinois. PM
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