A New Canvas for Sensory Landscapes

by Jonathan Wright

Changes large and small are afoot at the revitalized Peoria Art Guild.

The recent economic downturn has taken a toll on nonprofit and arts organizations across the country, and the Peoria Art Guild has been no exception. In April 2010, as funding sources dried up, the venerable institution was forced to temporarily suspend its exhibits, classes and retail shop. “We had to retool to survive…and try to weather the storm,” explains Bill Conger, an artist and former curator of University Galleries at Illinois State University, who serves on the Guild’s board of directors. “But we’ve worked our way through. The board has some new faces…there are some new ideas and a bit of a change in direction in terms of our focus. We’re just trying to move forward into a new era.”

Over the last two years, the 133-year-old organization has gradually emerged from survival mode. It resolved its funding issues by “tightening the belt buckle, downsizing our programs…and watching every dime spent,” explains Jenny Parkhurst, communications and sponsor relations coordinator. “In 2011, we decided to focus on our most successful events, which meant a strong focus on the Fine Art Fair and our outreach programs.”

Last year also saw the re-emergence of the Guild’s regular exhibition schedule. With the organization now on firmer ground, it plans a strong focus on exhibits in 2012—exhibits which will take place in a renovated upper gallery and newly created lower gallery.

The walls of the upper gallery have been repainted, old carpeting removed and the space itself reconfigured. “It feels like a brand-new space,” says Parkhurst. “It’s a beautiful, blank canvas, with ever-changing moods as natural sunlight beams into the space and dramatic lighting for the evening.” Adjacent to the upper gallery, an unused office was transformed into a resource center where artists and the public can browse an extensive inventory of books and videos about contemporary art.

On the lower level, the former retail store has been converted into a second gallery—a more intimate space than the 3,500 square feet upstairs. “Oftentimes, we find two artists that complement each other well, and now we have the luxury of exhibiting both at the same time,” adds Parkhurst. “By utilizing the first floor as exhibit space, we can feature more artists throughout the year much more cost-effectively…and fulfill our core mission with greater impact.”

Gateway to the World
Not only will visitors experience a revitalized gallery space, the exhibits themselves will be more diverse and expansive in nature. “Because we have two galleries at our disposal, we are still able to focus on local and regional artists, but at the same time bring a new level of exhibitions that you might find only in Chicago or New York,” says Parkhurst. “The intent is to have local artists—and especially the general public—interact with artists from outside our region, providing inspiration, insight and understanding of contemporary art.”

“Artists need stimulus—they need to be able to see art from outside of their immediate region,” adds Conger, who chairs the Guild’s exhibition committee. “That’s really what a museum or gallery is responsible for doing. We’re trying to make good on that vision.”

Even as it brings in more artists from outside the region, the Guild will maintain a focus on artists with Peoria roots or some kind of connection to central Illinois. Such is the case with the exhibit coming in March, featuring the paintings and drawings of Peoria native Sarah Nesbit and the video projections of her friend and colleague, Lynda Wellhausen.

Nesbit currently lives in Chicago, but her ties to the Peoria Art Guild run deep; she even worked there in the mid-2000s. This connection—along with a personal affinity for her work—led Bill Conger to approach her about returning, this time as an exhibitor. Conger was first introduced to her at a gallery show in Chicago in 2006, not knowing she was from Peoria.

“Sarah presented a series of small paintings loosely based on landscape and memory,” he recalled. “The show was extremely moving and emotional because of the small scale of the paintings, and the way you could kind of ‘fall into’ them. You really felt like you were in this…ethereal, misty memory of the artist. I’ve been following her work ever since.”

Landscapes Blurred and Obscured
Residue. Obscured. Interference. Fuzz. Snow. These are a few of the words Nesbit uses to refer to her recent work. “I think of this body of work as 'sensory landscapes,’” she says. “[But] they aren't really landscapes, at least in the typical sense. The disintegrating, blurred landscape is a clue that something else is going on. It reflects the vision of the Self: the viewer. In the cyclical nature of environment (in)forming individual and individual informing environment, it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. It is ambiguous territory.”

Nesbit’s paintings can be appreciated on a number of levels. Like dreams, they exist on an otherworldly plane, to be uniquely interpreted by the individual—“the vision of the Self.” They reflect the artist’s fascination with “perceiving the ultimate reality” and document an exploration into the worlds of phenomenology, mythology, spirituality and metaphysics: “how, at a base level, everything we say and take for granted as being solid is, in fact, varying frequencies of vibrating light.”

But however erudite its origins, Nesbit’s work is easily appreciated at face value—for its veils of blended color, for its wispy strokes, for the fuzzy forms that hold a cracked mirror up to the viewer. Sensory landscapes, indeed.

“I was always interested in painting,” she says, recalling a photograph of herself, just a year old, sitting on the floor, painting. “The older I got, it grew more important to me…as a form of meditation and [for] processing things.” She began her pursuit of the arts at Richwoods High School and Illinois Central College before moving to the Windy City, where she studied fine art at the University of Illinois at Chicago and received her master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After a brief return to her hometown, she spent several years in Germany, before coming back to the States in 2010.

The Nesbit/Wellhausen exhibit will run at the Peoria Art Guild, 203 Harrison St., from March 7th to 31st, with an opening reception on March 10th. Regular gallery hours are 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday, with extended hours for opening receptions and special events. Call (309) 637-2787, visit peoriaartguild.org or check the Guild’s Facebook page for the latest details. To see more of Sarah Nesbit’s work, visit sarahnesbit.com.

While she does explore other thematic territory, Nesbit consistently returns to her fuzzy, atmospheric landscapes—the outcome of a unique vision that guides her artistic hand. “There is a neutrality to nature—that it sort of receives whatever we project on it,” she muses. “The limitless expanse of the outdoors aids the imagination, [as opposed to] the confines of an interior space.”

The crux of Nesbit’s work lies in that interplay between nature and the mind—the way her canvas ties the “limitless expanse of the outdoors” to the unbounded mental frontier—the path of the seeker. Bold and confident, a strong sense of her artistic purpose is not only palpable, it’s enduring. “This has been a lifelong investigation for her,” notes Conger.

The Traces We Leave
Nesbit will be joined by Lynda Wellhausen, an Illinois native and New York City-based video artist who exhibited with her at a group show in Chicago last summer. “Bill and I agreed it would be good to pair a video artist with this work,” Nesbit explains. “Lyn's work uses visual disturbances and fuzzed, grainy images [that] always have a degree of obscurity...something I can identify with.”

“[Nesbit’s] work is fairly small in scale,” notes Conger. “I think she was sensitive to the idea that her paintings would be complemented by, not only a different kind of media, but a different kind of scale.” Wellhausen’s contribution, in the form of a half-dozen wall-sized video projections that will loop continuously during exhibit hours, undoubtedly achieves this, accentuating Nesbit’s own play of the senses. And like Nesbit, she brings an unwavering sense of purpose to her work.

“I’m interested in exploring vulnerability and serendipity with my videos,” says Wellhausen. “There are moments when you’re going through the daily motions of your life and your guard is down. These moments can be awkward or absurd, but I find beauty in that repetition...it ends up creating the traces we leave on the world, and those that the world leaves on us.”

Her videos often originate as performance pieces—“this allows me to experience and explore the gestures I may ask others to perform.” Among others, she cites the pioneering performance artist Allan Kaprow as inspiration, for his ideas about “charging ordinary actions with metaphorical power.” For example, in the performance that inspired her movie Lipstick, Wellhausen explored what can happen “when the routinized gesture of applying lipstick is disrupted.”

In another piece, titled Disburden, she solicited someone on Craigslist to be her performer. “I enjoy working with people from Craigslist because we have no preconceptions about working together.” she explains. “At first, I was the one in the videos, simply because I needed a female figure and that was the easiest way. But eventually I found that I was able to accomplish more by getting behind the camera.”

Paired with Nesbit’s paintings, Wellhausen’s videos offer a parallel sensory journey, evoking the same “kind of ethereal quality of memory,” declares Conger. “It’s a very different kind of interpretation of a very similar interest.

“The way she blurs the video and saturates the color and creates these very painterly motifs that move…they repeat, they back up, they go forward, they get faster, they get slower,” he continues. “They’re very entrancing…just beautiful to see.”

2012 And Beyond
Throughout the month of March, visitors to the Peoria Art Guild can experience the hazy, mystical qualities of these two artists in its newly renovated upper gallery. Additional changes, including a major rebranding campaign, are in the works, with announcements to come soon.

“Lots of exciting things are happening at the Guild in 2012!” exclaims Parkhurst. Besides the physical renovations, the organization is gearing up for this year’s exhibit schedule, planning the 50th annual Fine Art Fair and actively exploring options for reinstating its educational classes.

“We’re interested in renovating the exterior of the Art Guild, as well as the interior,” says Conger. “We have plans for new signage and a different appearance in terms of how the public sees us. Keeping in mind the fact that we’ll be in the center of some of the Warehouse District developments…we’re nothing but positive looking into 2012 and beyond.” a&s