“We went through Vermont, and Vermont had these artisan shops at their rest stops — a couple of them anyway — in which they exhibited and sold crafts and art done by Vermont artists and folk artists. It was a very impressive display, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll bet Illinois has artists and artisans as good as those in Vermont. Why aren’t we promoting Illinois arts and crafts?’”
Soon, the first 1,500-square foot artisans shop opened in 1985 in Chicago on the second floor of what was then called the State of Illinois building on Randolph Street but which is now known as the Thompson Center. “I am very proud because [the shop has] given a lot of Illinois artists and artisans a much wider exposure to people in this state,’’ Thompson says.
Today, more than 1,750 artists are on record as having participated in the artisan program, which is “one of the leading, if not the leading, juried artist program in the state of Illinois,” says Carolyn Patterson, who has directed the program since 2001.
Jurors, who come from different parts of the state, are shown slides that do not identify the artists or their hometowns. During each of the two jury periods, about 25 to 50 artists are selected.
The Illinois Artisan Program is one of the oldest in the country, she says. As a matter of fact, the Southern Illinois Art and Artisan Center at Rend Lake has been a draw to visitors planning their own galleries for local work, including Tamarack in West Virginia and the craft market at Berea, Kentucky. “The artisan program has always been at the forefront of artisan programs in the U.S.,” Patterson says.
The mission is to provide national, regional and local public relations for the artists and the program “to get the word out we have this great cultural heritage in this state,” Patterson says. “We have a diversity of artists that are making their living in this state, and also to give opportunities to artists that they wouldn’t otherwise have just on their own.”
They’ve made paintings, pottery, photographs, arts-and-crafts-style furniture, bronze statues and collages fashioned from found materials such as pieces of quilt, buttons and bottle caps.
They’ve beaded bunches of delicate lavender grapes, carved Shaker boxes, fused glass, forged metal, produced precious metal clay jewelry and rehydrated tropical butterflies. They include Sandra Willard of Springfield, who uses scratchboard to produce highly detailed images. “She’s a magician,” Patterson says. “Her work is just completely magical.”
Mindy Gardner of Farmer City crafts leaves of maples and oaks from forged metal. Patterson collects gingko leaves as models.
The artists have come from Alton, Bishop, Carbondale, Cobden, Chicago, Chenoa, Champaign, Farmer City, Granite City, Mattoon, Makanda, Morton, Murphysboro, Mount Vernon, Maple Park, Oak Park, Springfield, Woodstock and other places across Illinois.
“The most public manifestation” of the program is the four stores: the one at the Thompson Center and the Southern Illinois Art and Artisan Center at Rend Lake, which include galleries; and the museum stores at Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown and at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. The work of about 1,000 artists is represented in the stores, which are operated through the Illinois State Museum Society, a 501(c)(3) the nonprofit established to help the museum raise funds.
The Rend Lake artisan center opened in 1991. Thompson cackles when he explains the origins. “The one at Rend Lake came about because when I was on the [Illinois House] floor on that fateful night when we saved the White Sox from closure (in 1988,) I was walking up the Democratic side looking for votes, and this one representative stopped me — a representative from southern Illinois — and said: ‘Well, I could vote for the White Sox. You know in my district there aren’t any White Sox fans. Well, I could do it, governor but I want something in return.’ And I said, “What is that?’ ‘Well, I think we ought to have an arts and craft center at Rend Lake.’ And I thought: “Oh baby. O.K. that’ll be very hard to do, but I’ll do it.’” Thompson laughs for a moment. “So we did.”
According to Patterson, the representative whose name Thompson couldn’t remember was James Rea of Christopher.
The former governor is among the group of elected officials who, when traveling abroad, would call shops in Chicago and Springfield to find out what would be appropriate and affordable to use as a gift. For instance, Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford recently purchased horsehair pottery made by Jeffrey Gourd of Bishop from the Springfield store.
Thompson says: “I would purchase gifts to be used on our foreign trade missions from the artisan shop in Chicago … I would always bring small pieces, Illinois arts and crafts. They weren’t very expensive, but I’d buy 30 or 40 before a trip, and they were always well received.”
In town for a conference of township officials, Ela Township Trustee Anne Dobbertin drifts through the Springfield shop in November, eying the wares. “I think they are nice pieces, quality pieces,’’ she says. “If I had a budget for art, I’d be buying.“
The Chicago store takes custom orders for items such as mugs and jewelry. A “look book” is kept to show shoppers the possibilities. “That has been a big success over the last year,” Patterson says.
Besides the stores, the Illinois Artisan Program serves to connect artists with the public. Artisans participate in art sprees in February through December. Stations are set up in the first floor atrium of the Thompson Center, and artists show their wares.
Demonstrations have been set up in sites such as downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park. On December 1-4, a One of a Kind show is scheduled for Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Thirty-six members of the Illinois Artisan Program will be among the 600 artists from all over the country expected to participate.
In Springfield, which lacks a public gallery space, the Robert Morris Gallery has hosted Made in Illinois shows comprising the artisans’ works. Another show will occur next year. Patterson says two of the artists participating drew interest from other galleries. One of the artists, painter John Scarborough, a former steelworker from Granite City, was selected for his own show at the Morris gallery. The self-taught artist’s work, which includes still lifes such as boiling eggs or bell peppers in a sink, “is amazing to me” Patterson says.
Scarborough says that through the artisan program, “I sell a lot of stuff. They have all kind of opportunities. It gives you a chance to be connected with other artists, to show your work. In this day and time, an opportunity is a big deal.”
Dwain Naragon, a potter from Charleston who teaches at Eastern Illinois University, agrees. “It probably has more of an impact than just about any arts organization in the state. If we didn’t have this organization in the state, I think probably the arts would suffer,’’ says Naragon, whose work stands out because he uses a stamped pattern technique for his plates and bowls, which often come in varying shades of blue. “For me personally, it’s been great. There are not too many places where you can have four locations to market your works. That’s been great.”
Says Patterson: “We’re able to offer a lot of opportunities to artists they wouldn’t otherwise have. Most can take it from there and make something good happen.”
Illinois Issues, December 2011