Warriors for the Literary Arts

by Katie Thompson

Deb Collett is a woman who wears many hats. She is a mother and wife, operations manager for Collett’s Automotive in Morton and an emergency on-call operator for an investment firm. She is also founder of the Aesthetic Underground, a literary group that meets twice a month at the Contemporary Art Center, providing an open forum for artists, writers, poets, thespians and others to express themselves.

The concept for the Aesthetic Underground originated back in the winter of 2000-2001, when Collett felt the need for an outlet for her writing. “The idea came about because I did not have a life!” she laughed. “I had an eight-and-a-half year hiatus from creative writing,” she noted, due to the stress of running a company and raising children. As time went on and her children grew older and the stress of the business lessened, Collett felt that it was the time to resume some of her old interests.

“I began writing again in 1999. The majority of it was poetry, including some prose and journaling,” she explained. After being encouraged by family and friends to share her work with others, Collett decided to join a writer’s group, but found little available at that time that really suited her needs.

She found that searching the Peoria area for a writer’s group was like an “echo in an empty room.” At one point, there had been an open mic night at the Contemporary Art Center, but that had since been disbanded. Her search led her to Barnes & Noble, where she launched an early version of the Aesthetic Underground. These initial stages included building the website and organizing a spoken word forum that met at the bookstore. Unknowingly, at the same time, two other women were pursuing similar goals.

About the same time, Cheri Nordstrom was organizing Wordsmiths by Night, a composition and writer’s group, and Nena Daugherty was beginning Nabi’s House, an outlet for African-American artists. “It turns out that there were three women that had different versions of the same idea; Cheri Nordstrom, myself and Nena Daugherty,” Collett explains. “[The idea] was based on ‘I need this and Peoria needs this.”

Each woman implemented her idea in a different way. Collett’s idea was founded because she needed a break from small children and wanted to “give Peoria a voice.” Nordstrom’s motive stemmed from the fact that she was a writer and wanted a place to have accountability in her writing from other writers. Daugherty’s goal was to give Peoria’s African- American community a forum to celebrate their backgrounds. By 2003, all three women had met and realized that they were a part of Peoria’s emerging literary community.

“Louder than a Bomb,” a Chicago poetry event hosted by young Chicago artists, was one of Collett’s inspirations for the Aesthetic Underground. “Here were these talented teenage kids, the majority of whom were from the inner city or economically depressed areas. Instead of getting into drugs and trouble, they wrote. They wrote themselves into good lives,” she said.

Collett felt the need to bring a similar type of venue to Peoria. Since 2003, one of her goals for the Aesthetic Underground was to be a “safe place for teenagers…to share their voice and creativity.” Collett would ultimately like to see the Aesthetic Underground develop into an open mic event where teenagers show up in masses, but she encourages writers and artists of all ages to participate.

“The Aesthetic Underground is an open mic venue. It is whatever anyone wants it to be, but with an emphasis on poetry.” Collett explained that the group, which typically meets on the first and third Sundays of each month, is also an open forum for visual artists and musicians. She states that the group acts as “training wheels for the amateur, and is also a place for professional artists.” She says that they are supportive of every person and every situation. “We will clap and cheer your efforts simply because you did it. Sometimes the success is just making it to the stage.”

The name Aesthetic Underground is an analogy to the historic Underground Railroad. While the Underground Railroad’s mission was to transport slaves to freedom, Collett’s goal is to discover and encourage “undercover artists.” She states that she so often hears someone say, ‘I could never do that,’ about an artistic endeavor, and she disagrees.

“People are so afraid of failing, they don’t give themselves the opportunity to succeed. I don’t care if you are black or blue or white or purple, you are a person and you have a voice—that is why the Aesthetic Underground exists—to give a voice to the arts.”

The Contemporary Art Center has supported the Aesthetic Underground by providing a facility for its meetings and events. Preston Jackson, co-founder of the CAC, views the group and its members as “warriors” for the cause of art.

“In order for art to work here in a city like Peoria…the arts people, we’re like warriors,” he said. “We have to constantly be out there, bringing things in and upholding the idea that art is very important for our city. There are times when we have to struggle, like all artists everywhere, but the interesting thing is that art and artists, we never go away—we’re always here, as vigilant as ever, as creative as ever. Even through turmoil, even through depression and economic upheaval, art seems to always be there.”

In her struggle to find a writer’s group that fit her needs as an artist, Deb Collett took the initiative, founding her own venue and outlet. She is truly one of the arts “warriors” of Peoria. a&s