For years, Peoria’s artists have largely congregated their studios in three areas: on the Riverfront, in the Warehouse District and along the West Main Street corridor. But as the city’s arts scene continues to grow, so does the need for new and different types of spaces. Enter North Art Studios, housed within St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in central Peoria, which opened in March of 2019. For most of this group, it was their first time renting studio space. In other words, this was not a reshuffling of artists from other local studios, but a brand-new artistic grouping.
A Beneficial Arrangement
The opportunity to host artists came about thanks to excess space, as the Rev. Jenny Repogle and Rev. Jonathan Thomas sought ways to utilize the classrooms that were added to the church in 1969 when the congregation briefly tried to run its own school. St. Paul’s involvement in the arts, however, can be traced back to when the original building was erected 60 years ago. Designed by St. Louis architect Frederick Wallace Dunn, St. Paul’s was radically contemporary in 1959, while numerous commissioned art pieces decorate the worship space, including works by the renowned Peoria artist Nita Sunderland.
“The arts are woven into the fabric of our faith tradition in a way that we can be encouraged to wade into mystery, appreciate the beauty of creation, and become co-creators with God,” explains Rev. Thomas. “A number of artists in the congregation helped us make the connections we needed to get started, and we were quickly able to convert the spaces into studios.”
The church reached out to the Emerging Artists Collective, a network of Peoria-area artists who came together with a vision to “encourage, educate and create for more artistic opportunities.” Barbie Perry was among those artists and admits she was skeptical at first. “We had conversations before we moved in… and asked all of the really hard questions. Can there be wine?” she laughs.
“Or what about an artist who paints nudes?” adds artist Jaci Musec, who was also present for some of those early meetings. In other words: Would the church censor the work being produced or attempt to control the artists? The answer to that was a firm “no.”
“None of the artists are church members, and there is no expectation for them to be,” Rev. Thomas notes. “I think there is something inherently religious—and even holy—about art because it is fundamentally about recognizing beauty, expressing ineffable truth, dreaming, imagining and creating. I think those things are at the heart of the Christian faith.
“We don’t ask that any of the artists share that view, and we don’t try to control what they create,” he adds. “We simply try to offer them a hospitable place to create.”
“They aren’t trying to recruit us,” Musec agrees. “They are just happy to have this space utilized by community members.”
The name “North Art Studios” came about over time, as the artists began to realize they should brand themselves as something more than just “the studios at St. Paul’s.” So, they got together and pitched ideas, landing on a name that everyone could agree upon—a nod to their location at 3601 N. North Street. Because the group is in its infancy, they are still figuring out their identity within Peoria’s arts community. “Right now we all have our own separate businesses,” Musec explains. “Are we starting up another business, or are we a collective that has a name?”
“It’s a dynamic organization,” Perry agrees. “People are still moving in and figuring out how they want to arrange their studios. Jaci changes her space every month,” she remarks, as they both laugh. “It takes time. We have 10 people here—most of them don’t know each other, and we have to figure it out.”
With access to a full kitchen, meeting rooms, exhibit space and a dog-friendly courtyard, North Art Studios is focused on fostering a sense of community. “It was important for us that the artist floor had both a kitchen, so there was a communal space for them to bounce ideas off each other, and a classroom they could use to teach outside of their studios,” Rev. Thomas explains.
According to the artists, the arrangement has been overwhelmingly positive so far. “I have been so energized,” says Musec, whose studio occupies one of the larger spaces, with numerous windows that draw in natural light. “I want to be here!”
“It’s amazing how often people are here,” Perry adds. “It’s nice. I can come over to Jaci and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ and get her input. It’s good to have that collaboration with people you trust will give you honest feedback.”
As for the church, the impact of the artists has been equally positive. Over the years, St. Paul’s has served as a practice and performance space for a number of performing arts groups, including the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Area Civic Chorale, Nitsch Theatre Arts and the Peoria Children’s Choir. Given these connections, Rev. Thomas explains, it was natural to expand on the visual arts.
“There has been a lot of excitement about having the artists, which has led to a number of conversations about what next steps are,” he notes, adding that they’ve already started working together. “The church recently restored our organ and had a concert that we combined with an art show, with all the artists displaying work in the sanctuary. It was a wonderful event. We have allowed the artists to hang their work throughout our building to beautify our space and give them more exposure.” The church is also planning to involve the artists in plans for a free or low-cost summer arts camp.
St. Paul’s currently has 10 studios under contract, and that number is growing. They hope to be open for First Fridays sometime in 2020, but for now they encourage visitors to contact the individual artists for a tour or more information. The public is encouraged to attend their first open house on Sunday, December 15, from 11am to 3pm. PM
North Art Studios is located inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 3601 N. North Street in Peoria. More information can be found at facebook.com/NorthArtStudios.