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Illinois Country Living

Applause for the Fine Arts in Illinois

By Lisa Rigoni

A drum roll sounds; voices and music fill the air. Spotlights hone in on a scene full of actors, singers, dancers - and the production begins, live with characters in full costume. Regional/area musicians and songwriters sit in a group and share their original songs, some that may even be about your co-op area. Artists use their skills to create paintings in watercolors, or transfer their artistic vision to an etching, a drawing. They may craft one-of-a-kind pottery, design jewelry or fashion a sculpture masterpiece.

It’s a long-time tradition. It’s the arts in rural Illinois. Whether it is the visual arts, performing arts or written arts, the cultural activity still reigns strong in the Midwest, and the opportunity to experience the arts in varied forms may be right in your own backyard so to speak!

Artists and their work

Artists and their work

Sally Bischel paints from her Galena studio. Two of her paintings, “Thistles” and “Snoop Sisters Inn” are pictured below. Ken Bradbury dishes up the entertainment at the M.J.M. Annual Meeting, and local Galena artist, Charlie Fach, offers free pottery demonstrations on the weekends.

The Players

In fact, according to Terry Scrogum, Executive Director of the Illinois Arts Council (IAC), there is a lot going on in the arts in Illinois. “We (in Illinois) have a very rich culture and activities that are arts-related are numerous, and much of it is in the rural parts of Illinois. Often times, it starts in the schools.

“While there are larger urban schools in more metropolitan areas that have very fine theater programs, I find that the students in the smaller schools may take advantage of those opportunities in greater numbers. Everyone is involved … the cheerleaders, the football players, everyone. Scrogum grew up in the Spoon River Electric Cooperative area in Astoria, and is familiar with life in a small, rural community.

“Coming from a small school, myself, a graduating class of 43, I understand those dynamics. We always had a play our junior year, and we were all involved in some way. In the rural areas you sometimes just don’t have the numbers to draw from, so more of the students get involved,” continued Scrogum. “One of the advantages is that it often provides experiences that may help later in life. For example, getting up in front of people and speaking is one of the most difficult things for many to do comfortably. If you have experience performing in front of others, whether it be in a play, singing or playing an instrument in a concert or production, it does help.”

Of course, having the audience also helps, and that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

The Audiences

The smaller populations often support the arts in a big way says Ken Bradbury, a guru in the central Illinois arts communities. “And it isn’t because there’s nothing better to do, as some might think,” he says. “People in the rural areas genuinely enjoy the arts.” And he would know. He lives in Arenzville, population 400. “When I began teaching 35 years ago, there were at the most three theater groups in the area. Now there are 15 to 20. People are excited about going to see a production!

“Here’s the thing. In Springfield about 10 percent of the population will take advantage of the arts, go to a performance. In a rural community, about 60 percent of the population will take advantage.” Why? Bradbury says one of the reasons is that those in the rural communities are used to traveling, often even to go get bread, so traveling somewhere to go see a play or a concert is not that big a deal.” He smiled and said he had recently called Sangamon Auditorium to order his season ticket. “She asked my address. I told her Arenzville. Her response? ‘Another one?’”

Bradbury’s rural address is not a hindrance to his involvement in theater. He likes where he is, and even declined an offer he received years ago to move to Chicago/New York. “There is nothing like living here. People are connected!”

He not only attends shows, but also has written and published more than 300 scripts and musicals, sometimes partnering with others, including Ron Wainwright of Chatham. “I have to tell you he sent me a musical and I first told him I wouldn’t look at it or listen to it. I get a lot of scripts that people want me to critique. And there just isn’t enough time to get to all of them, so I have learned to say no. Ron persisted so I finally listened and it was the best music I have ever heard!” Bradbury wrote the words around the music and they have since produced David: You and I, and have collaborated on other projects as well.

Recently, Bradbury served as the entertainment at M.J.M. Electric Cooperative, Inc.’s Annual Meeting in Carlinville. “You know I get to do a lot of things like I did at this meeting, and it’s fun,” he said.

Nancy Nixon, Marketing and Member Services Administrator at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, agreed after she saw him. “You could tell he was having fun. It made it enjoyable for everyone. He really hammed it up, too! I was trying to take his picture and he would stop, pose and yet never miss a beat in what he was saying or what he was playing on the piano. And I’m not sure, but I think that was the first time I had ever heard Amazing Grace played honky-tonk style!”

Visual Arts

Galena’s population is about 3,600, and is home to more than 80 fine artists. What does that mean? It means that Galena-area residents not only value the rural lifestyle, but also embrace the arts.

Sally Bischel, President of Galena Artist’s Guild, Inc., is one of those artists, and she and her husband, Dwight, are members of Jo-Carroll Energy. He is a retired television director. In addition to her work with the Guild, Sally owns an art studio. She grew up on the East Coast in Philadelphia where her father was part of the Philadelphia Orchestra. She later attended the Philadelphia College of Art, did some freelancing, and worked as Art Director at a Chicago advertising agency. Galena had served as a vacation spot and place of peace then. “We loved it so much we decided to make it home. It is such a wonderful area and the arts are important to the Galena-area residents,” she said.

More than 60 of the area artists show their work at the Guild’s gallery. While it was a little slow in getting regular shows up and running, they now hold six shows a year. Each artist has to volunteer time at the gallery. Shows are member shows. The Guild generally showcases two artists at a time and the hours that the Guild is open increase in May to five-days a week from three days a week.

“We have people in our membership who are from the tri-state area, even a couple from Chicago, but for the most part they are local artists. We started with a few artists who had an interest and wanted a forum where they could get together and share their work. Now we are a 501(c)3. We have about 100 members with 60 or more of them being artists –ranging from working artists, to recreational artists to aspiring artists,” said Bischel. “The average age is 40 and up, though we do have a few 20- and 30-year olds. It really is a great mix.”

There are 13 galleries and studios in the Galena/Elizabeth area alone. You’ll find large and eccentric sculptures, handmade pottery, two and three dimensional fine art and featured artists shows, handmade jewelry, original watercolor paintings and etchings of Galena, Chicago, ball parks, barns and florals, as well as juried art and photographs.

Arts as a Learning Tool

“Fine arts is a very important part of education, too, and is something that is very near and dear to my heart. I think the arts help stimulate creativity, give people a place, an opportunity to express themselves,” said Scrogum. “One of the things our world needs is more people who use their imagination, who are willing to look way beyond the structures of the boxes we fit in daily and use that creativity to enhance the world ahead.”

Addressing the topic of art and education, Bischel said the Guild offers scholarships to students who attend Jo-Daviess County schools or who are graduates of those schools and are pursuing art degrees. “We get the word out through the art teachers and several of our Guild artists teach summer camps and visit the schools. I imagine a number of other communities like us do the same thing.”

Bradbury said he has seen a rise in attendance at the Green Pastures Christian Camp that he helped found. “We run four performing arts camps each summer with 120 kids per camp. It continues to grow each year.” The camp is located in Meredosia. “We offer dance, mime, music, drama, art and puppets and each is done in a way to share the love of Jesus. It’s a Christian camp, and we use the arts to teach!”

“The arts provides a great sense of accomplishment to those who participate,” said Scrogum. “It also is a way of nurturing. It is a way to celebrate, whether you are a performer, writer, painter or spectator.”

“One of my favorite things is to see a 10- or 11-year-old kid see a show or a piece of art and then hear them say ‘That is so cool!” said Bradbury. “And we need to continue to teach them that appreciation!”

Arts Going Forward

The Illinois Arts Council continues to provide funding to many projects around the state. “Regranting is one of the best things we do,” said Scrogum. “Smaller communities tend to know their needs the best. As a result we often provide grants to area arts councils or arts organizations. They in turn determine the best use of the grant money for their community arts projects.”

The Illinois Arts Council has provided more than 800 operating grants throughout the state. “Some of the community theaters rely on that funding. We are pleased to help organizations such as New Salem’s Theater in the Park in Menard County. The Two Rivers Arts Council in McDonough County has received funding, as has the Little Theater-On the Square in Sullivan. The Quincy Art Center in Adams County has received funding for their Youth Employment in the Arts project.” Plus, Scrogum says, “We help provide visual arts residencies as well. We continue to try and reach far and wide in Illinois.”

The arts are important to the older generation, too, said Bradbury. “I see the 70-year-olds going to art classes now that they are retired. And the Baby Boomers are starting to retire. They have more time; they want to learn and they also want to go to shows or be in them. One of these days, I think we’ll need to cater to them a bit more - produce the shows at different times – one night-time performance and four matinee’s,” he continued.

“That is one of the great things about the arts … it is available to the masses. It is something that is fulfilling whether you are young or old, and whether you live in the big cities or right here in rural Illinois!” says Bradbury. “The arts are indeed alive and well!”

Web links of interest:

For additional arts opportunities in your community call your area arts council or college/university.


© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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