Love Letters to Peoria

A unique project channels the events of a tumultuous summer into love for the community.

by Mae Gilliland Wright
Peoria-based artist Morgan “Madhatter” Mullen

When asked about her artwork, Peoria-based artist Morgan “Madhatter” Mullen describes her style as “minimal, mostly.” She favors flat, geometric and straightforward designs, and her work is often deeply personal and purposeful. Though she readily admits she is not the most talkative person, her web presence reveals an artist grappling with the difficult emotions brought on by this significant moment in history. In the midst of a global pandemic, nationwide protests and a contentious election year, Mullen’s stark designs stand apart from the noise—as a powerful force for good.

From Paint to Peoria
Growing up in Calumet City, just south of Chicago, Mullen and her twin brother watched their mother draw from a young age. They enjoyed creating art on their computer, using Microsoft Paint to create frames for stop-motion animation, which they would bring to life by advancing the frames in PowerPoint. “Microsoft Paint is the worst,” she concedes with a laugh. “But it’s really good for drawing stick people!”

As her talents progressed, her mother’s support for her artistic endeavors was unwavering—“but she also wanted us to get jobs,” Mullen chuckles. When it was suggested that she apply to Bradley University, she had never heard of the school before. “I didn’t even know [Peoria] existed,” she admits. After graduating in 2014 with a degree in graphic design, Mullen chose to stay in Peoria. She freelanced and worked in a variety of positions, prioritizing the flexibility that allowed time for her artistic projects. 

Created in 2019, “Masks” speaks to the fluidity and utility of hair in the Black community. At its center, mirrored versions of the same image reveal an inner turmoil.
Created in 2019, “Masks” speaks to the fluidity and utility of hair in the Black community. At its center, mirrored versions of the same image reveal an inner turmoil.

In 2019 her friend and fellow artist Alexander Martin invited her to present her work in a gallery show exploring Queer and Black identities through the lens of social media. She developed an installation entitled “Masks,” which spoke to the fluidity and utility of hair in the Black community. The concept came about when Mullen found herself reintroducing herself to people she had already met, simply because they did not recognize her with a new hairstyle. “As a Black woman, our hair is the main feature because we can change it and do so many things with it,” she explains. “But it is also part of our identity.”

A couple of months later, Mullen produced a second version of “Masks,” in which the viewer was presented with six versions of the artist—each represented by selfies reflecting different emotions, hairstyles and life situations. At its center, side-by-side versions of the same image signify the Greek gods Thalia and Melpomene: the muses of comedy and tragedy. Based on a selfie she took after the death of her cousin, the image reflects her hidden turmoil: though outwardly she may have appeared to be okay, the tears streaming from her mirrored counterpart reveal an inner sadness.

Last year, Mullen launched a website and online shop to promote and sell her artwork. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, however, she faced an unprecedented challenge. Amidst the chaos, she decided to funnel her creative energy into helping others.

A Physical Form of Love
In the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, demonstrators in Peoria took to the streets to march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Mullen, who was visiting family near Chicago, watched the events unfold on social media. When she observed a potentially dangerous response to the protests from a local business owner, she attempted to engage him in conversation, to no avail. Frustrated by all the negativity, she decided to channel her anger into something positive—and thus was born “Love Letters to Peoria.” 

“It’s a pin shaped like a paper airplane,” Mullen explains, “and it is a love letter,” something people can wear to show love for their community. “During this time of COVID, with everyone shut down, and the social justice movement of Black Lives Matter… I wanted to have something physical—like a physical form of love—that people could have.” 

The 1.5-inch, gold hard enamel pin is mounted on a postcard featuring the 500-year-old giant burr oak tree on High Street. “It’s my favorite tree in Peoria,” she explains. “I always show it to my friends when they visit, so I wanted to have that as the background for the pin.” Minus 10 percent to cover production costs, the vast majority of proceeds is being donated to four local organizations: Center for Prevention of Abuse, Central Illinois Friends, Girls Light Our Way and Young Revolution. “I wanted to do this project to help our most vulnerable communities,” Mullen says.

Shaped like a paper airplane, the 1.5-inch, gold hard enamel pin is mounted on a postcard featuring the 500-year-old giant burr oak tree on High Street.
Shaped like a paper airplane, the 1.5-inch, gold hard enamel pin is mounted on a postcard featuring the 500-year-old giant burr oak tree on High Street.

In her own love letter to Peoria, the artist reflects on how she has felt loved, protected and supported by so many in the community. “The project was to highlight me, as an outsider, the stuff that I love about Peoria. Everybody asks if I’m going to stay here forever—and I know that I’m not—but it has been a big part of my world,” she remarks. “I love Peoria and all of the people I met here, so I really wanted to send that love to them.”

Mullen recently designed a tote bag for Zion Coffee’s “For the Love of Community” initiative, a collaboration with the Jolt Foundation and Dream Center Peoria. With each purchase, Zion donates a backpack full of personal hygiene items to some of the city’s most at-risk populations. Another design of hers is being featured on a homemade bath bomb created by the locally-based Annie Elaine Bath Co., with proceeds going to the same four organizations as the Love Letters to Peoria project. 

Creations of Meaning
During the 30-day campaign for Love Letters to Peoria, hundreds of supporters from 23 different states supported the project. Not only does it benefit causes that Mullen cares about, she sees it as a way to spread positive news about the city itself. “It’s teaching more people about Peoria,” she suggests. “That these people want to support the Peoria community is just… so big for me.”

In these trying times, Love Letters to Peoria struck a meaningful chord. “This has been the most positive change for me,” she observes, reflecting on the events of this summer. “Seeing how far it has gone, and seeing everybody share it… it makes me so happy.”

Over the years, the realization that she can work on literally anything she wants to has been freeing, Mullen explains. Still, she knows that artists must stand by what they create. “Everything you make is a reflection of you. If you said it, if you want to make it, then you’ve got to live with that forever,” she declares. “Anybody can make anything—anybody can change anything. Just be open.” PM

For more information, visit madhatmo.com.

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