Dr. Peter Couri has combined his love of Peoria history with his love of the arts, melding the two into a new catalog chronicling Peoria’s extensive public art. This labor of love for Couri will have a lasting benefit for central Illinois residents.
A History of Art
Couri was raised in a family where community service and the arts were emphasized. "My mother, Isabelle, worked hard to start Lakeview Museum, and we kids were enrolled in almost every creative class it offered when it first began. She spent thousands of hours attending all the games of every sport we kids were playing in. But she also made sure we attended performances of the Amateur Music Club, Broadway Theater League, and Corn Stock Theatre frequently," he said.
As an adult, he and his wife, Barb, carry on the tradition of arts exposure for their children. "Most Peorians know Barb as one of the area’s most talented local theater actresses. She had the lead in Meet Me in St. Louis last summer at Corn Stock Theater and was Emma Goldman in Peoria Players’ Ragtime last February. Our two children are both in college now, but growing up backstage at the local theaters surrounded by talented, creative people really influenced them," he said.
Couri said during his college years at Loyola University in Chicago, he took full advantage of the cultural events offered. "My Chicago friends always made fun of me for being from Peoria, and one of my greatest pleasures was driving them down to Peoria and seeing how shocked they were to find a great city."
He became heavily immersed in the Peoria arts and history scene in 1989, when Gloria LaHood suggested he get involved with the celebration of Peoria’s 300th founding. "When the TriCentennial Celebration began in 1991 and ended a year later, I had participated in more than 83 projects with Gloria promoting Peoria’s history, including the start-up of First Night, Mardi Gras, and the Yule Like Peoria celebrations. She taught me that history wasn’t a dry school subject, but really storytelling. It was the type of storytelling that fostered much civic pride in our local community and passed down to the next generation what made our community great."
The TriCentennial also fostered the seeds of historic tourism in Peoria, he said. "I’ve written historic articles and brochures for the Peoria Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, and tourism magazines that promote our historic heritage. One history of Peoria brochure was translated into 12 languages. And we’ve focused Illinois tourism on some of our landmark events such as the 100th anniversary of the Peoria Courthouse War Memorial, the 150th anniversary of the city charter in 1845, the 100th anniversary of 1899 Peoria City Hall, the 175th anniversary of Peoria County, and the 20th Anniversary of the Civic Center."
With his extensive experience in both local history and art, producing a public arts catalog was a natural fit. "ArtsPartners has available my newest historic Peoria publication called ’The Peoria Area Gallery: Public Art Tour.’ It’s a free, 32-page, full-color booklet that will guide people through the great public art in Peoria," he explained. "The booklet is divided into seven tour areas of the city: downtown Peoria, Peoria River Walk, South Peoria, Bradley University, Lakeview Museum, Glen Oak Park, and the outskirts of the city."
Future plans call for the catalog to be available on the city’s Web sites and on CDs for every school in the city to keep as a reference.
He said the public art catalog isn’t just for tourism and visitors, but for all Peorians-to raise awareness of the treasures the city possesses and instill civic pride. "Once I started amassing the data, I realized the art education value such a catalog would possess. Most of our legendary local artists are represented here and many who have national importance. You can experience local and national historical events and tell the story of the American experience through the decades with the art works."
Couri said the idea for the catalog came about in 2000. "We were attending an event at the Cornerstone Building, which used to be the Order of the Eastern Star Church. The founders of the church, the Donmeyer family, were buried there. They commissioned Peoria’s greatest sculptor, Fritz Triebel, to decorate their crypts with marble busts of their family, and they surrounded a five-foot marble statue of a veiled woman called ’Silence.’ That piece of art was haunting and would stun you into silence with its beauty. When I went to view the statue, it was gone; someone had stolen it. It’s worth a fortune and hasn’t been found to this day. I thought it very troubling that there was no photographic record of ’Silence,’ so I made a vow to photograph Peoria’s great art masterpieces for the historic record."
Two weeks later, he went to the National City Bank building to photograph their Fritz Triebel bronze sculpture of Walter Barker. "It was missing also, and no one could tell me what happened to it. So for the past four years, I’ve photographed Peoria’s public art. I now have six full volumes of photographs. I didn’t realize at the time how much art is out there. Art I passed by every day without a thought has taken on new meaning for me because when you research the artist and the stories behind the art, you raise the artistic awareness to a whole new level."
Capturing the City’s Treasures
Couri began incorporating the art stories into the city bus tours he presented and to VIPs who were in Peoria, Couri said. "I realized the tremendous tourism value in our public art. The Hotel Pere Marquette, for example, has two massive, colorful murals of Father Jacques Marquette with the native peoples and Robert LaSalle on his Lake Michigan ship. Few visitors-or even lifelong Peorians-know they were painted in the 1920s by George Mathews Harding, the greatest muralist of his generation and whose works are considered masterpieces and can be found in New York, Boston, and Chicago today. In the eyes of a visitor, such information imparts a more positive perception of Peoria."
Just outside of the Hotel Pere Marquette there’s the "Madison Maiden," which graces what was once the entrance to the Madison Theater. "It reminds you of the grace and art nouveau grandeur of 1920s America. But walk to the back of the Madison, and you’ll find a strikingly different modern mural named ’The Jazz Age,’ created by a class of Bradley University art students in the early 1990s," he said.
Two beautiful sculptures by Peorian Mary Clark Anderson called "Peace" and "Harvest" reside near Becker Plaza. "The story connected to the sculptures is that they were commissioned during the great Depression of the 1930s to employ artists through the WPA program. Today, they’re considered the finest and are the largest examples of outdoor Depression art left in America," Couri explained.
For years, he said, Peorians have walked by four other examples of WPA art without realizing their importance. "The Federal Courthouse-the old post office-on Main Street is decorated with four limestone bas-reliefs commissioned during the Depression, which were done by Chicago sculptor Freeman School-craft. They depict a Peoria man of industry, a Peoria woman of agriculture, a Native American, and a Peoria postal worker. Schoolcraft carved them on site in 1938, and it being a freezing cold January, he wrote he had to keep his carving tools warm in his jacket so he could use them. He had an actual Potawatomi Indian pose for the sculpture because he knew they were prominent in our area at one time. I fell out of my chair when I opened Time magazine a few years ago when they were reporting on a Freeman Schoolcraft retrospective in Georgia. There in the background was a floor-to-ceiling blowup of Schoolcraft’s Peoria Indian."
On the lower level of the Apollo Fine Arts Centre is "Nymphs and Satyr," painted by Chicagoan Louis Kurz in the 1890s. "Its content may be scandalous, but its story is just as controversial. The painting once hung in Peoria’s most popular tavern, run by Peter Weast. At the turn of the century, Carrie Nation brought her campaign against alcohol to Peoria. Armed with her famous hatchet, she and her followers burst into Weast’s tavern and threatened to chop the painting to pieces. But Weast bribed her with $50, let her give her anti-alcohol speech, and peacefully escorted her out, saving the painting for future generations to enjoy."
A piece considered one of the finest Civil War memorial art works in the nation-sculpted by Peorian Fritz Triebel-is located at Peoria County Courthouse. "It was dedicated by President McKinley in 1899. The eagle towering over the top is the legendary ’Old Abe, the War Eagle,’ which was actually paraded down Peoria’s streets for two hours during a patriotic celebration in 1866. Every Civil War battle Old Abe was carried into was victorious for the Union soldiers. And the most photographed man in Peoria stands firmly on the other end of the courthouse. All kids want their picture taken next to the life-size Abraham Lincoln sculpture by John McClarey," he said.
Couri explained visitors to City Hall encounter art pieces that reflect central Illinois’ heritage. "On the fourth floor, you’ll find a mural entitled ’Peoria. August 31,1831,’ painted by Peoria painters Frank Peyraud and Hardesty Maratta, who would both go on to become internationally famous artists. Across the hall is Lonnie Stewart’s masterwork of Peoria’s French founder entitled ’Henri de Tonti, Founder of Peoria, at Pimiteoui 1691-93.’ In between is a photographic overview of downtown Peoria in the 1940s. Enter the city council chambers and you encounter the ’Peoria Muses’ mural. It was painted in 1914 by Will Peaco. He traveled from town to town looking for public building art commissions. He filled his mural with symbols of early Peoria, including distillery smoke stacks and our ancient wooden bridge that crossed the Illinois River."
The Peoria Civic Center hosts a variety of modern art done by Philip Johnson, one of the America’s most famous architects, though Couri, a member of the Peoria Civic Center Authority, said he views the building as a piece of public art in itself. "Civic centers need to exude a full sense of excitement, majesty, and deep civic pride. Helping to formulate the greatest public art work in the city is one job I truly look forward to."
The Peoria Public Library is also a building full of hidden artistic treasures, he said. "Behind the reference desk is a painting by Peoria’s most beloved painter, Hedley Waycott. He founded Peoria’s first art societies, and they exhibited in the basement of the old library at the turn of the century. In the children’s reading room is an oil painting of an Irish lass by Power O’Malley named ’Una of Infsphere.’ He was an Irish immigrant who became one of America’s most famous early magazine illustrators, especially for Life magazine in the 1910s. His oils are extremely rare. In the business room hangs an oil painting called ’Seed’ by John Courtright. The painting depicts a lively scene of hand planting seeds in a rich farm field."
Couri admitted his favorite art pieces are Preston Jackson’s works. "His imagination and vivid images merge together in works that are a mass of activity and life. I can photograph his pieces from every angle and see something different each time. Though we have many of his artworks on the riverfront now, I hope he continues to donate, as they’re treasures future generations will be enjoying for years to come."
Couri’s public art catalog got a big boost from ArtsPartners, with which he became affiliated four years ago when it was just an idea. "I had pitched the idea of a public arts catalog to various tourism, museum, and historical groups around town. But when I appeared at the ArtsPartners office with my hundreds of photographs and a comprehensive art listing that had never been fully done before, director Suzette Boulais became very excited. She felt such a project would accomplish their mission of promoting art education, tourism, and public awareness in the city."
The arts catalog took four years to assemble because records about many of the artworks were never kept, especially the riverfront art, Couri said. "Sculptor Bob Emser came to town and identified the pieces down there for us. Many of the works at Bradley University were donated by students, and I had to track down their art professors and their families to identify many of those pieces."
In a sad reminder of why he began this lengthy project, an amazing 24 pieces of art have disappeared since Couri started photographing them.
With the success of this booklet, a number of additional projects and catalogs are being considered, he said. "We’re making preliminary plans now to do a survey of the art in the school buildings in the city. I gave a speech at Central and was surprised at the murals and paintings there that have been donated through the years. After I told Peoria County Administrator Pat Ulrich about the arts catalog, it was announced that the courthouse wasasking local artists to donate works for display there. It’ll be exciting to see what they choose, as we have some dynamic artists in the city."
For more information, call Arts-Partners at 676-2787. AA!