Just over a year ago, in October 2019, I was among the volunteers at the Big Picture Street Festival, welcoming and counting attendees who had come to Peoria’s Warehouse District to check out local dancers and musicians, live mural artists, a chalk art competition, an iron pour, raku firing demonstrations, and an assortment of other creative activities. On this chilly and blustery Saturday, we struggled to keep up with the inflow of people as the wind repeatedly scattered our materials in every direction.
As a crane rose high over Washington Street, hoisting a bright yellow flag emblazoned with the Big Picture logo, I quickly snapped a photo—only to watch the winds whip it apart moments later. “Oh well,” Doug Leunig shrugged with a grin. After all, the flag had little bearing on the fun and dynamic experiences that would mark our memories of that day.
As co-founders of the Big Picture Initiative, Doug and Eileen Leunig embody this positive and forward-thinking attitude daily. The “Big Picture,” for them, is to shed light on our region’s potential, particularly in the creative arts. Forced to cancel this year’s street festival, they saw an opportunity to strengthen the organization in other ways: through public art murals and arts education. And thus, out of the turmoil of 2020 was born two new projects: the Washington Street Mural Gallery and Giving Voice, a new online magazine.
Investment in Community
Like so many other stories this year, I first heard about Giving Voice over a Zoom call—Doug and Eileen wanted to chat about expanding Big Picture’s educational offerings. Their idea was to start an online magazine (or “zine”) that would connect people through their personal stories in order to foster empathy, equity and community collaboration. It would also feature photo essays and video blogs (“vlogs”), focusing first on the voices of youth. The hope is that the students of Generation Z, now in high school and college, would learn to make their voices heard through professional outlets, leaping beyond the generational divide to influence key decision makers.
Smiling beneath their trademark locks of silvery hair, the couple sat together flanked by their faithful Alaskan Malamutes, Toby and Sami. After explaining the concept, they asked if I would serve as editor in chief, mentoring the students and helping them learn what it is like to work with a professional editor. A longtime supporter of Big Picture’s work in the community, I quickly accepted—joining a team comprised of Doug, Eileen and the Big Picture board of directors, who together act as publisher; Jamie Wunning, graphic designer and art director; and Trent Miles, an intern with Big Picture.
The idea for Giving Voice came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests earlier this spring, as the Big Picture team contemplated how they could help the community process these numerous fraught issues. “We decided to do something like NPR’s StoryCorps—but start by getting student voices heard,” Eileen explains. Upon receiving a $25,000 grant from the Gilmore Foundation, the program had the funds needed to bring their idea to fruition. “We realized that we could really further the cause of students having a voice and being able to participate in our community.”
After all, Doug adds, the couple has always believed that the arts are much more than pictures on a wall. “They are about critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration,” he declares. “And all four of those things are exactly what Giving Voice is all about.”
The students are treated like professionals—they must submit a proposed article, and if accepted, they are paid for their work. I am tasked with pushing them to think critically about their topic, ask more questions and offer solutions. “We have this concept where seasoned professionals work with young people to help them understand what a profession involves and how to hone your skills,” Eileen explains. “We want those young people to have that opportunity to rise up, become leaders and make the world a better place.”
“It’s an investment in their passion,” Doug affirms. “If they are getting a little bit of money for what they really care about, that’s only going to lead to more involvement—to want to do better, earn more and move forward.”
That was the case with Big Picture intern Trent Miles, who was already writing regularly for his blog “Envirowrite” when the Leunigs connected with him. In addition to writing for Giving Voice, the Richwoods High School senior acts as a liaison to other students who may be interested in sharing their voice. “The opportunity to develop and create Giving Voice opened a door for me that never would have opened had it not been for Big Picture,” Trent says. “My hope is that we can expand to different areas of Illinois—and even further, eventually.”
Jamie Wunning, a Bradley University undergraduate who started as an intern with Big Picture creating web designs and newsletters, was tasked with designing a 52-page publication from scratch. “I was new to the world of magazines,” she admits. “But it has been an incredibly fun learning experience! There have been some challenging times, but when you are lucky enough to work with a team of talented and supportive people, the challenges act more as fun and engaging opportunities for growth. I cannot begin to describe how rewarding it is to collaborate with a team of like-minded creatives to produce an outlet for community stories.”
The first issue of Giving Voice, published in October 2020, covered topics ranging from accessible healthcare and the importance of education to the power of empathy. Future issues will be published monthly and can be downloaded at bigpicturepeoria.org. Eventually, the Leunigs hope to expand the program to include mentoring for the graphic design and video components as well. “It’s part of a bigger plan to develop creatives in our community,” Eileen notes. “And you develop them by giving them not only financial opportunities, but by giving them professional skills… and to learn and grow and be guided by that one-on-one contact with a mentor.”
Galleries of New Public Art
In addition to Giving Voice, Big Picture Initiative is once again pushing forward with new public murals intended to enliven buildings throughout the Peoria region. They’ve done this at the recently unveiled Washington Street Gallery, where eight large-scale murals now adorn the former Van Buskirk Steel building in Peoria’s Warehouse District. After purchasing the property less than two years ago, local residents John and Gina Wetzel engaged Big Picture to help them create an art walk—not only to beautify a fairly nondescript building, but to show their pride in Peoria and its vibrant arts community.
The featured murals include a piece from the Leunigs and a vintage Gipps Beer ad courtesy of the Peoria Public Library, as well as photography, paintings and mixed media by local artists William Butler, Keith Cotton, Brian Jensen, Steph Van Doren, Natalie Jackson and Lori Reed.
Even as they unveiled another round of public art, Big Picture has set its sights on expanding beyond downtown Peoria and the Warehouse District. “Part of our plan all along has been not to just get up a few murals in Peoria, but to have central Illinois be an arts destination with mounted murals,” Doug notes. Unlike painted murals, mounted murals can be swapped out—which opens up a range of new possibilities, including bringing in art from around the world.
Outside of Peoria, the Leunigs point to Leigh Ann Brown of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, who spearheaded a mural project in Morton with artwork celebrating the community’s past, present and future. In September, three mounted murals featuring the work of painter Connie Andrews were unveiled in lieu of the cancelled Morton Pumpkin Festival, with their frames manufactured by local businesses.
Hoping to encourage similar projects around the region, Big Picture is willing to help other area businesses do the same: if a business purchases the frame, they will help identify and pay the artists. “It’s about a 50/50 arrangement,” Eileen notes. In addition to larger-scale works, Big Picture has its sights set on more manageable, compact sizes—placing multiple five- by four-foot images alongside a building gives it more of a true “gallery feel.”
“We know that public art makes a place feel more secure and more inviting,” Eileen observes. “The perfect vision is to have small businesses in neighborhoods, with more art to encourage walkability. I think we suffer from having a ‘car mindset’—we need to counter that. Get out! Meet your neighbors.”
Beyond the benefits art can provide a neighborhood, Doug points to the healing power it holds as well. “The Veterans Administration is the largest governmental agency to acknowledge that the arts help depression and PTSD… The arts create hope—and that is the key right there,” he declares. “We have the ability to inspire hope and joy through the arts. Why don’t we do it?“
“If you devote a little bit of time to studying a piece of art, your emotions get caught up in what the art is helping you feel or express,” Eileen agrees. “Art helps heal people by giving them an emotional outlet, and public art is a very safe way to enjoy art right now.”
As another Zoom call comes to a close, Doug repeats something I have heard him say many times but continues to be true—if slightly less so thanks to groups like Big Picture: “Arts is a four-letter word for people not involved!
“The only way that people will understand what art is all about is to see it and to get it and to be involved in it,” he continues. “That’s what the Big Picture Street Festival is. That’s what the murals are. That’s what community art is all about—seeing is believing.”
With programs like Giving Voice, the Leunigs hope to demonstrate that the arts are at the heart of innovation, integral to everything we do—from marketing, advertising and writing to entertainment and policy making. “You don’t have to become a painter, potter or a first-chair violinist,” Eileen notes. “Art instills that sense of curiosity that every business needs.”
“This is the thing that we have been pitching for—and now it’s starting another renaissance in Peoria,” Doug says. “We are at this tipping point. And the tipping point is knowing that the arts have significance that is good for the economy, good for education—good for us all.” PM
To learn more about Giving Voice and Big Picture’s other programs, visit bigpicturepeoria.org.