An Unlikely Home for an Artist Collective

A new collective takes an unusual route to bring art and creativity to the public.

by David McDonald, Academy of Fretted Instruments
The Academy of Fretted Instruments ribbon cutting.
The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting for the Academy of Fretted Instruments/Peace of Heart Artist Collective in October. Founder David McDonald cut the ribbon, while several artists from the collective gathered behind him.

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed a surge of artist collectives popping up around the ol’ Whiskey City? In the past, the trend has been to find an old building in an “overlooked” or “forgotten” part of town and attempt to breathe new life into the sleepy structure, hoping to foster and inspire newfound creativity via an eclectic group of artists willing to not only use the space to create, but to educate as well. One might say that is exactly what I have set out to accomplish with the Peace of Heart Artist Collective, in conjunction with my business, the Academy of Fretted Instruments, where I teach lessons on guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, bass and piano.

What’s unusual to many people about this collective is its location at Northwoods Mall. I was initially hesitant to set up shop at the mall, but I absolutely fell in love with the narrow, shotgun-style corner spot with glass walls next to Spencer Gifts. It also happens to be convenient for my patrons. Parents can drop their child off for a lesson, and shop or grab a cup of coffee while they wait. Besides the grocery store and gas station, the mall is one of the last places in society which draws people from all walks of life. There is something for everyone, and people like to spend time there… so what better place to display art? 

The Challenges Facing Artists
About a year ago, I met a self-taught artist who was just finding her niche and wished she could afford a studio spot at one of the popular artist dens here in Peoria. She wanted a place to go that would fuel her creativity, allow her to work on her art, and serve as a place to store and display her work. Listening to her, it’s clear how difficult it is for artists to get their work out in the public eye for consumption. To succeed, they must do some combination of the following: 

  • Work out of their homes and constantly use Etsy, Instagram and Facebook to promote their efforts; 
  • Find a gallery or a business space that will display their work—only to have a healthy commission taken if the work sells; 
  • Pay to enter the hustle and bustle of art fairs and farmers’ markets; or 
  • Take the risk of signing a long-term lease on a studio space, and hope they sell enough work to recover the cost. 

But in the endless sea of social media, it’s difficult to stand out from the pack. There are only so many galleries and businesses in town available to display the work of local artists. It’s expensive and time-consuming to travel the art fair circuit, and there’s no guarantee of sales. And many of the artists I’ve spoken to who have leased a studio space found that it caused them to go into the red financially. Nothing about being an artist is easy. That’s often why we come together as a collective.

Dave McDonald gives guitar lessons to Calvin Edwards.
McDonald gives guitar lessons to Calvin Edwards.

Assemblage of Creativity
The Peace of Heart Artist Collective is a space where artists have the opportunity to display, advertise and sell their work in a setting where disposable income is the name of the game. As an added bonus, they don’t have to wait for a once-a-month art crawl to get some foot traffic, while the monthly cost of membership equates to dinner and a movie. I do not take a single commission from any work sold or a cut from any artist’s workshop.

With the Peace of Heart Artist Collective, I hope to assemble a handful of amazingly gifted artists who not only create original works, but have the passion and desire to share their gift with those who are yearning to learn. The collective currently includes:

  • Christine Wallbom of Wallbom Studios specializes in oil painting. Her subject matter is inspired by nature, unexpected kindness, whimsy and humor.
  • Metal sculptor Gene Mialkowski of Gene-O’s Art is a carpenter and craftsman by trade. He learned his love of metal sculpture after taking on an assignment from Preston Jackson in 2002—and he’s been hooked ever since.
  • Jennifer Short designs one-of-a-kind jewelry featuring gemstones with sterling silver, solid brass and recycled aluminum.
  • Watercolor artist Kagan Masters has been practicing for more than 20 years, working in a variety of mediums. She is known for painting with coffee because of its accessibility and low environmental impact.
  • John Boylan of ArtJeb creates mixed media works that tend to be wildly bright and colorful. His work is inspired by pop culture, local architecture and the mundane, such as concrete cracks, dirty walls and stray marks—the things most people no longer see.
  • Multimedia artist Katie VerKuilen describes her artistic style as “erratic, elusive, flexible and dynamic.” She specializes in ceramics while working in a range of mediums and studying special effects makeup.

As a teacher, I believe education is an important component of artistry. As the father of twin six-year-old girls who love to draw, paint and create, I am constantly looking for ways to spark their creativity by exposing them to all types of art—and to the artists themselves. Unfortunately, we live in an era when it is not uncommon for art and music programs in the schools to be just shy of non-existent—especially at the elementary level. Ideally, I think all children should grow up surrounded by artists of all types, enriching their lives through music, painting, jewelry, photography, ceramics, poetry, culinary arts… Whatever the form it takes, it’s all food for the soul. I hope we can play a small role in that at Peace of Heart Artist Collective.

Daring to Fail Gloriously
Finally, I believe it’s important for the community to support its artists by buying their work, taking lessons and introducing their children to new forms of creativity. And let’s not forget: when purchasing a work of art from an artist—whether it’s a photographer, painter, musician or chef—what you’re buying is more than just an object. You’re buying hundreds of hours of trial and error… from someone who’s willing to dare to fail gloriously. You’re buying a piece of their spirit, a moment of an artist’s own life experience. Just as importantly, you’re buying the artist more time to do something they love. 

In the end, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re actually buying something that brings the artist—and, hopefully, you—an ease of mind and peace of heart. PM

David McDonald is owner of the Academy of Fretted Instruments and founder of the Peace of Heart Artist Collective. To learn more, visit or see their work in person at Northwoods Mall in Peoria.