Where Does Art Go for the Winter?

by Lynette Woelfle Steger
Photos courtesy of Sculpture Walk Peoria

Making public art a permanent fixture on the central Illinois landscape

Above: Awaken by Don Frost, now located at a private residence in Peoria

Think back. Do you remember the children’s book The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton? It was the tale of a small pink house built into the countryside that eventually became surrounded by the growing city around it. This book has become a classic because the house takes on human emotions and thoughts and asks the reader to question: What does it mean to be happy in one’s environment? What attributes in our surrounding community are significant to our quality of life?

A Hopeful Landscape
In 2015, a dedicated group of volunteers launched Sculpture Walk Peoria in the city’s Warehouse District. They had a vision that installing and replacing public art on a regular, short-term basis would create an engaging aesthetic experience that would draw people from all over to Peoria’s downtown. The original three-year initiative was like building that little pink house. It provided the capital, the land and the plans to create a home for what has become a beloved interactive experience that brings visitors to the area, gets residents talking, and causes photos of Peoria to be shared throughout the world on social media.

A number of charter sponsors, along with grants and annual fundraising by volunteers, covered expenses for the first three years, leading many people in the region to believe that the exhibit was either free or paid for through tax funding for the arts. So when economic change came to Peoria in the fall of 2016, Sculpture Walk Peoria, like many nonprofits, had hard decisions to make regarding whether or not it could—or should—continue. 

Hope, Charlie BrouwerBut 2016 was also the year that “Hope” came to Peoria—and it stayed....

Constructed from durable locust wood by artist Charlie Brouwer of Willis, Virginia, “Hope” is a sculpture depicting a younger child looking up at an older one, and the older one looking off into the distance. Brouwer believed young families are the epitome of hope. And he believed, as do the volunteers of Sculpture Walk Peoria, that we all play a part in our own invention. Today, “Hope” remains in central Illinois—on display at Wildlife Prairie Park.

In total, there are now 11 pieces of sculpture from four years of Sculpture Walk Peoria that will spend all of their winters here. Local residents and organizations have purchased them, making them permanent additions to the central Illinois landscape—because they know how art enriches our surroundings and contributes to our quality of life.

Expressions of Place
Publicly accessible art is special. It is available for all to enjoy, allowing people to experience art in the course of their daily lives. It is an exchange that is ongoing and dynamic and often serves as an individual’s first introduction to a community’s cultural world. 

Those of us who have chosen to make central Illinois our home will not allow words like “Rust Belt” to define our cities and towns. And it doesn’t matter if you are a young professional, a busy parent or a retiree, we all aspire to live in places where the environment draws us in. Places with strong expressions of public art spark the imagination of the people who live within them. They give communities a strong sense of identity, which in turn attracts additional creative resources to those places.

Sociologist Richard Sennett states that a city is diminished and compromised when its form is not shaped by the thoughts, expressions and actions of the people inhabiting it. Attend a First Friday event at any artist’s studio and listen—the Peoria arts scene is going through a renaissance! The secret has been inspiring donors and partners with a creative and artistic path toward economic development, downtown revitalization and cultural equity. By tracking needs-based outcomes, arts initiatives like Sculpture Walk Peoria prove themselves to be worthy investments, truly benefiting the people of our community. 

And so, urged on by the almost 8,000 schoolchildren who have experienced Sculpture Walk Peoria through free art education resources and more than 3,500 people attending opening-day events and free, docent-led tours, Sculpture Walk Peoria asks you to play a part with us in Peoria’s reinvention.

Eleven pieces of sculpture from four years of Sculpture Walk Peoria now reside permanently in central Illinois. Among them are Phenomenon by Fisher Stolz at the Pekin Public Library, Three Ids of Self by Jaci Willis at UnityPoint Health - Pekin East, and Eternal Flame by Matt Matheney at the Morton Public Library.

An Ever-Changing Streetscape
Since its beginning, Sculpture Walk Peoria has brought a total of 54 unique sculptures to Washington Street, along with 43 artists from 16 states and one Canadian province. The Sculpture Walk committee is hard at work making plans for the 2019 exhibit, set to open on Saturday, May 18, 2019, at the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Sun Plaza. Plans for 2019 include…

  • Expanding the duration of the Walk from May of 2019 through March of 2020;
  • Offering new sponsorship opportunities and recognition perks;
  • Providing educational opportunities and resources, including the Otocast audio tour smartphone app and free, weekly docent-led tours; and
  • An opening day celebration featuring a “meet-and-learn” with the artists, docent-led tours and child-friendly arts activities corresponding with the start of the Peoria RiverFront Market.

We invite you to join us in transforming, educating and inspiring people from within our community and beyond—contributing to a vibrant and ever-changing streetscape. As Burton’s book states, “This Little House… shall live to see our great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” Let’s build Peoria’s reputation as a destination for world-class art experiences, both for this generation and those to come. a&s

Lynette Woelfle Steger is chair of Sculpture Walk Peoria and an ArtsPartners of Central Illinois board member. For more information, visit sculpturewalkpeoria.org or contact ArtsPartners at (309) 676-2787 or admin2@artspartners.net.