“Vital lives are about action,” the author, craftsperson and educator Joan Erikson once said. “You can’t feel warmth unless you create it, can’t feel delight unless you play, can’t know serendipity unless you risk.” These are lessons Celeste Restrepo of Dunlap has taken to heart.
Restrepo opened Creative Soul Gallery just three months before the COVID-19 global pandemic hit. You might guess what happened next.
Running a gallery—and a new one at that—is challenging for anyone at any time, but she took it in stride. After all, she had already gone through many other challenges in life, including a harrowing experience with a brain tumor. Listening to her story, one finds Restrepo’s life to be an exquisite study on the art of serendipity and the importance of savoring each moment.
Flipping a Switch
“My whole life, creativity has kind of been my thing—whether it’s writing or creating an event,” she begins. “I think I wrote my first story or book when I was in second grade… a little book with illustrations.” As she speaks, surrounded by local artwork, Restrepo is in her element.
Creative Soul Gallery is a haven for creative spirits, carved out of a small but mighty slice of Dunlap. As Restrepo relays stories about her youth, it seems obvious she was destined for this line of work—or perhaps this work was destined for her. “Most of my career, great things have happened to me that have just been coincidental,” she explains.
When she was a student at Bradley University, Restrepo had to take a visual photography class. Entering into it, she felt frustration—she struggled to make sense of the professor’s instructions and felt no sense of connection with the concept of photography as a discipline. Then, she happened to change professors, and not only did everything make sense… she fell in love with it. “It was like somebody flipped the switch in my head. I realized I could transmit through photos what I was feeling and seeing,” she recalls. “It was just a serendipity type of moment. I went on to become a photojournalism minor.”
Restrepo spent most of her career in the corporate world, including a stint as the marketing and communications manager for an insurance company. During the interview process for that position, she was required to present a pitch on creating a new business. In hindsight, her pitch sounds more like a prognostication: “I thought, well, I would promote the work of local artists!”
At the time, Restrepo was involved with a group called “Creative Artists and Crafters Tackle Unfinished Stuff”—a.k.a. the CACTUS Club. She recalls being blown away by their talent. “They were not just any creative artists and crafters,” she points out. Case in point: they once considered acquiring a llama to use its wool for dying and weaving, though the idea proved tricky and they decided against it.
Meanwhile, Restrepo had been wondering if she could pull off her dream of creating an arts business with the group, but the llama experience brought about a revelation. “I thought, okay, if we can’t do a llama, there is no way we can do the shop that keeps kicking around the back of my head!” she laughs. Unfortunately, ideas were not the only things in her head. In fact, her life was about to be transformed forever.
A Burst of Color
One morning Restrepo woke up and the world didn’t look quite the same as usual. “It was actually kind of cool, if it weren’t so abnormal,” she offers with a smile. “I got out of bed, went in the bathroom… Right here in my field of vision there was a flickering—almost like multicolored swirls, like a fan moving around.” She was instructed to go straight to the emergency room. What happened next could almost be called a comedy of errors, if the circumstances weren’t so serious.
Initially diagnosed with an ocular migraine, Restrepo remained unconvinced. “The [doctor] was kind of arrogant. He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not anything important, like a brain tumor,’” she recalls with a smirk. After more visits with medical professionals, they finally ordered an MRI scan. She was quickly informed by her doctor that she had a deadly type of tumor and would likely not survive.
Devastated, she turned to a friend who happened to be a radiologist. “The bad news is, you have a brain tumor,” he told her. “The good news is, whoever read your MRI misread it!’” She just might survive after all.
Shocked by this revelation, Restrepo headed to Mayo Clinic. “I had seven and a half hours of brain surgery on Wednesday morning, and I was checking out Friday afternoon. How lucky is that?” she reflects. “Waking up was the best feeling, because I was alive.”
Every sunset suddenly had a deeper meaning. With a new chance at life, Restrepo decided it was finally time to pursue her dream of opening an art gallery. She found a space in Dunlap that would be perfect—but she still was looking for confirmation that she was pursuing the right path. When that confirmation arrived, it came from the unlikeliest of places.
Realizing a Dream
A year after her surgery, Restrepo returned to Mayo for a follow-up visit. While there, she happened to hear about a gallery that featured local artwork and hosted classes and workshops—exactly what she wanted to do in central Illinois. She decided to pay a visit and introduce herself.
When the gallery owner learned that Restrepo was from Peoria, she was visibly shocked. Her brother had been adopted, she explained, and after decades of separation, the two finally were reunited just one week earlier—in Peoria, of all places! The owner immediately began sharing information about her operations and business model. “I was just standing there dumbfounded,” Restrepo recalls with a chuckle.
Armed with a dizzying amount of valuable information, Restrepo called her friend Linda Webb, an artist who for years had encouraged her to open a gallery. “I told her this crazy story about the woman who had been to Peoria and how helpful she was. Linda was quiet for a moment, and she said to me: ‘What more do you need?’ And I thought, what more do I need?” Restrepo recalls. “That was a Tuesday. By Friday, I had formed an LLC and was on my way to opening the business.”
Creative Soul Gallery opened to the public in December 2019—the culmination of Restrepo’s dreams. But just three months later, the pandemic forced her to shut it down. Thinking back over the past year and the struggles she faced, she admits to being frustrated. More significantly, she lost a beloved aunt to COVID-19—a woman who “always made everything beautiful” and inspired with her creativity.
But as with everything else in her life, Restrepo remained focused. With its doors now open again, Creative Soul showcases a diverse range of artwork from mostly central Illinois artists, from Linda Webb’s intricate polymer clay jewelry to artwork created by 22VA—a group named for the 22 American veterans who take their lives each day, whose aim is to help local veterans heal through art.
The collaboration with 22VA is just one of many causes Restrepo supports through the gallery. “I had three reasons for forming this business,” she notes. “One was obviously to promote local artists—and then make some revenue. But I also wanted to promote causes I was passionate about.”
Restrepo’s concern for the environment, for instance, found her recently teaming up with local artist and naturalist Peggy West for her first post-COVID event. “It was a butterfly release for National Prairie Day, where I featured three butterfly art projects and the work of Peggy West,” Restrepo recalls. “She was here telling people what kind of plants were good [for butterflies]. I also had people from the Central Illinois Monarch Task Force here as well.” She hopes to host a similar event later this summer.
As she muses about people understanding their own power to bring about positive change, Restrepo returns to the impact her health issues have had on her outlook. “When I thought I was dying, I didn’t wish I had spent more time at the office—I was wishing I spent more time with people who matter to me!” she observes. “Having these events where somebody can come in and see the butterflies, hold a caterpillar, and do an art project with their kids—you’re giving somebody else those moments.”
Learning to Live
In considering the future of Creative Soul Gallery, Restrepo says she wants it to be a vibrant place for people of all ages. “I have the perfect setup. I have a great courtyard, and people can come here for events,” she notes. “We have such a wonderful art community. It’s amazing the talent that is here… My vision is that this is a destination—and I am helping the people whose work is here to be successful as well.”
As our conversation ends, Restrepo mentions that butterflies have come to signify a great deal of personal meaning. “When I got my diagnosis, I started seeing butterflies,” she says. “That’s why there is a butterfly on my logo.”
And like a butterfly exiting a chrysalis, Restrepo’s life has transformed into one of beauty and joy—and she cherishes every moment, knowing none of them are promised. “My whole life, all the good things that have happened to me have been serendipity,” she notes, summarizing her experience by quoting a friend: “The exquisite gift of thinking you’re dying is learning how to live.” PM
Creative Soul Gallery is located at 208 North Second Street, Suite B, in Dunlap. To learn more, visit creativesoulgallery.com or call (309) 645-4303.
This article was sponsored by Big Picture Initiative. Learn more at bigpicturepeoria.org.