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Springfield Resident Artists Bring New Vision To Art Scene

Springfield’s oldest arts organization continues to grow. A recent visit to the Enos Park neighborhood was indicative of new efforts and collaborations.

At the doorway into Springfield Art Association's headquarters, Dave Shaw, retired Rochester High art teacher, welcomed all who entered. He stamped "passports" - little cards that gallery viewers could get stamped there, as well as two other galleries in town with shows that same night. It's a new collaborative effort to get more eyes on area-art.

SAA director, Betsy Dollar, explained. "This year I think there are three nights throughout the year where theSAA Collective, the Nelson Gallery here at the SAA and The Pharmacy will all be open on the same night and we'll try to make it more of a city 'happening.' It raises the energy and the expectation, you see a lot more in one night, whereas if you only visit one gallery consistently you don't really get an idea of what the scope of the work is here in town," she said.

Those who got their passport stamped at all galleries qualified for an art raffle. This sort of collaboration shows an increasingly cohesive art scene in Springfield. It's been a couple years since the Springfield Art Association, the city's oldest arts org founded in 1909 - merged with the Prairie Art Alliance. Changes at the SAA include the planned construction of new buildings, and a complete restoration of historic Edwards Place. Some of that expansion included the demolition of an experimental alternative art space on the organization's campus. With a four year run to its credit - it had been called, appropriately, DEMO.

"Obviously we are suffering a little bit with the demise of DEMO, the leaders of that decided they were tired and wanted to take some time off. There is a phoenix in there somewhere," Dollar said. In the meantime - a relatively new residency program on the SAA campus is continuing DEMO’s similar effort to bring fresh contemporary art to the community.

The reception at the SAA's M.G. Nelson Family Gallery showcased the three current resident artists. They’re not the first residents, but they have been living in apartments owned by the SAA for the longest, working toward this exhibit.

Robert Hotchkiss Thomson has paintings on the wall, a colorful psychedelic one was inspired in part by the writings of Dante. A Vermont native, Thomson has spent much of his adult life living in Chicago. He also taught in Korea. He said this has been an important time for him to once again become an active artist, as previously he was, "Desperately disconnected from my practice and really feeling that now is the time I gave it a shot. And I'm glad I did. I've been here for the past four months."

Credit enosparkresidency.org
this SAA building has apartments for artist residents

Bringing more artists into the Enos Park neighborhood, near the north end of town, is a deliberate effort to connect the emerging neighborhood with emerging and established artists. Dollar said she hopes some artists who come ultimately decide to stay. Thomson says having the large span of time to focus on his artwork has brought about memories. One theme of the evening for all the artists was nostalgia. He talked about one of the pieces he created. It's loosely based on the view he has from his apartment - looking out on the SAA campus, which includes old-growth trees and abstract sculptures. He said it didn't start out that way - but the environment has certainly served as inspiration.

"There's a tree, and that tree is what I looked at everyday - it was old when Abraham Lincoln was young, I found out. The atmosphere here started to trigger all these memories from growing up in Vermont - it all started to come together," said Thomson.

Fellow resident artist, Gene Tanta, also was drawn to memories of his past - notably life in Romania. He's now a resident of Decatur. He said during his time spent in Springfield he made friends in the neighborhood, some of whom he plays ping pong with. Tanta is interested in the intersection of visual art and language. One of his paintings is multi-media, including soy sauce. He said it's based off of a, "Photograph of my sister and I back in Romania in the house that my father built, with the help of some wine and some friends, which we left for Chicago. So you could say that it's sort of nostalgia for my childhood while at the same time I'm concerned with aesthetic formalities." Tanta echoes Thomson, in that the residency in Springfield has brought about a mental shift, and invaluable resources. "It's a time to focus, that a residency provides, and I've felt very grateful for the space and time to make art," said Tanta.

Tying the artwork on the walls together are the ceramics on display in the center of the room, many in hues of bright blue and green. Creator, Ginger Lukas is originally from Milwaukee, though she's lived in other cities, like Madison and Brooklyn. Some of her pieces are ornate and delicate - a candle holder with dozens of tiny hands, for instance. Others are more straightforward. A bag of money. A cup-holder from a fast food restaurant. She talked about a term that she's used to name the collection. "Hauntology is kind of this post-modern theory of having too much. Its defined as this idea of having a nostalgia for lost futures, the things that could have happened to you, but didn't. However I've taken it in this show to mean just having too much stuff around - too much to choose from," said Lukas.

Lukas has worked in a variety of conceptual mediums. She has an MFA in ceramics and the SAA's residency program has taken her back to the basics, in a way. "Clay was the first art form. It's basically just fancy mud (and) we can do whatever we want with it," she said.

Expansion to the Springfield Art Association's campus will benefit artists like Lukas. A new ceramics and glass lab is planned. And Lukas is an example of the residency program helping artists establish roots in the city. She's extending her time here to last at least a full year, going into the fall. She said she's inspired by something singer Patti Smith wrote – encouraging artists to forgo the bright lights and potential fame of New York City, in favor of sticking to their hometowns. Springfield is the sort of city that needs dedicated artists, Lukas said. "We need to reverse this brain-drain thing that's happening."

Going forward, the residency program is partnering with the University of Illinois Springfieldto host artists and display their work. Which means more artistic collaborations and an ever-changing roster of artistic vision is ahead. Those planning and facilitating hope the efforts prove to Springfield there is value in its artistic scene. Now it's just up to the community to show up.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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