Something Big Is Happening

Big Picture is celebrating the arts and changing the face of Peoria.

by Mike Bailey
Photography by Beau Commanday, David Vernon & Mike McGarvey
Artist Megan Couri
Artist Megan Couri will join the Big Picture team again on October 12. At this year's festival, artist Andrè Petty will paint a portrait of Richard Pryor to be displayed next to Couri’s mural on the Sous Chef building at 1311 SW Adams.

When it comes to their life’s passion, Eileen and Doug Leunig have three core beliefs that drive an almost missionary zeal. One, Peoria can become a national arts destination. Two, young artists need encouragement and support, and deserve every bit as much attention as student athletes. Three, artists must be paid for their labors. With those ambitions in mind, the cofounders of Big Picture Peoria are spearheading multiple events celebrating the arts—including their second annual street festival on Saturday, October 12 in Peoria’s historic Warehouse District. 

An Interactive Cornucopia
Mural art will be a centerpiece of the Big Picture Street Festival, with Dutch artist Ard Doko and Andrè Petty of Peoria showcasing their talents. Pick up a brush yourself at the paint-by-numbers community mural. Got a competitive itch to scratch? Don’t miss the chalk art and student team painting challenges. Tap into your inner ’60s child with tie-dye, or contribute a selfie to an artwork. For pure fun, you can’t beat a paint fling. Take home a piece of graffiti, watch an iron pour, witness pottery firing… 

Check out live music—including an enormous drum circle—or enter the open mic contest. Families, don’t miss the KidZone! This festival also has a social conscience, with a donation station highlighted by a sculpture created from donated canned goods. Exhausted yet?

Doug & Eileen Leunig
Big Picture founders Doug & Eileen Leunig

“We want this to be an interactive experience,” Eileen explains. “You can watch someone do a mural—but you can also do one yourself. What excites me is seeing people’s eyes light up when they discover they can actually create art.” 

The 2019 fest is twice the size of last year’s event, which was hampered by poor weather but still drew a sizable crowd. Admission is free. Meanwhile, the same weekend boasts the Peoria Film Festival on Friday, October 11, with more than 50 entries from as far away as Australia playing at five locations on West Main Street—then moving to the Peoria Riverfront Museum on Saturday with a best-of-show “red carpet event” recognizing the genres of student films, narrative, animated, documentary and music video. 

The Greatest Arts Community in America
There were multiple motivations for the Leunigs—two Caterpillar retirees who embarked on their Big Picture initiative in 2018—but they credit Peoria Riverfront Museum CEO John Morris for throwing down the gauntlet. “I refuse to have Peoria defined as the town that used to be the headquarters of Caterpillar,” Morris stated in 2017. “I want Peoria to be defined as the greatest arts community in America.”

Another inspiration was former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, who got off on the wrong foot with Peorians in 2009 with a backhanded criticism of the arts in a community he’d never visited. Landesman made up for the comment with repeated trips, ultimately calling Peoria “an NEA poster child.” 

A core group of some 15 volunteers set out to make it all happen, and were thrilled to discover so many others willing to raise their hands. Contractor Chuck Gabbert jumped in with activities at his own Arts Park. Arts patrons Sharon and John Amdall were generous. Other sponsors included the Gilmore Foundation, Illinois Mutual, Community Foundation of Central Illinois, Born Paint, Sunbelt Rentals, Adams Outdoor Advertising and WWCT 99.9 FM. Without them, none of this would be possible.

big picturebig pic

big picThe Arts Matter
But no one has worked more tirelessly than the Leunigs, who were the primary movers and shakers behind the iconic mounted mural “Abraham Blue” at the Peoria County Courthouse. They selected October for their big-splash events because it’s National Arts and Humanities Month, but their commitment goes well beyond. On November 2 they’ll take part in a fundraiser/gala at Peoria’s Scottish Rite Cathedral—along with entrepreneur/philanthropist Kim Blickenstaff—to help the Ronald McDonald House decorate its place with locally produced and purchased art. 

“Artists are always being tapped to give art away for ‘exposure,’” Doug says. “We have been on a campaign to stop that… The arts can be a career.” There’s a larger purpose as well. 

“The end goal is to provide examples of why the arts matter. It’s not just pictures on the wall,” Doug adds. “It’s about loving what you do and doing what you love. Eileen and I have seen from our own experience how much the arts create joy… and how much healing they bring.” PM 

For a festival map, schedule of events and more information, visit bigpicturepeoria.org.

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