In a unique presentation for central Illinois art aficionados, the Peoria Art Guild is offering two distinct exhibits woven into "Peoria Collects: The George and Norma Kottemann Collection and Peoria Women in the Arts, through 1970," which is on display June 10 to July 23. While the content may have little in common, what the exhibits do share is an opportunity to showcase the Peoria art world and its legacy.

Channy Lyons, curator of "Peoria Women in the Arts through 1970," explained the "Peoria Collects" idea. "Two years ago, the Art Guild put on an exhibit of favorite works from the homes and offices of local art collectors. It was such a success that the Guild decided to mount a Peoria Collects exhibition every two years. This year’s Peoria Collects takes the theme in two directions: the very contemporary and modern works in George and Norma Kottemann’s exceptional art collection, and a look at the art created by Peoria women in the past."

Peoria Women in the Arts
Lyons said the "Women in the Arts" exhibit brings together 40 years of art. "These are paintings, drawings, sculpture, painted china, photographs, and fiber works created by Peoria women from as early as 1845 through 1970. It’ll be the first time these works and the information gathered about women in the arts have been collected and exhibited together in our community. Peoria women have been adding their creative spark to our community for hundreds of years. We simply don’t hear about them often. Their artworks are communications; they’re documents of experience and, therefore, historically engaging-and they’re lovely to look at."

She said the exhibit is both an art show and a beautifully illustrated history lesson. "It tells personal life stories, community history, national history, women’s history, and, of course, art history. Some of the women created art for their own pleasure or because society expected them to. Others transformed a necessity into a work of art. Many were professional artists selling their work at local and national galleries and at art fairs. Their work reflects international styles, national and community themes, and cultural trends of the period in which they worked."

The art works run the gamut in terms of style, Lyons said. "From the formal portraits of John and Ellen Zeigler painted by Emily White in 1897 to Ellen Galusha Smith’s landscape painting created while on vacation in Puerto Rico in 1913; from Georgia Newton’s soft watercolors to Nita Sunderland sculptures made in Italy and Mexico in the 1950s-the works in the exhibit are varied in medium, style, and subject matter. To recognize the work of local women artists of all periods, the exhibit also depends on a scrapbook-like presentation of biographies of Peoria’s women artists, the creative processes they used, and the arts organizations they formed."

In deciding which pieces to highlight in the Art Guild exhibit, Lyons said a lot of library research was conducted. "I also received help from people like reference librarian Linda Aylward, who loves a challenge. Everyone I talk to is so helpful, sharing information and artwork and telling stories. A number of organizations looked for artwork in their collections, and they’re graciously lending work for the exhibit: the Peoria Women’s Club, Lakeview Museum, Illinois Central College, Bradley University, the YWCA, the Peoria Historical Society, and the Peoria Public Library. I appreciate their enthusiasm for this project. Private collectors and artists who were making art before 1970 are lending work as well."

The stories behind these works of art often are as intriguing as the finished product. "For example, Esther Sloneger began learning how to take pictures and do her own developing after her husband was drafted and shipped overseas in 1942. She took pictures of her girlfriends, and they sent them to their husbands overseas. When the men returned from the war, Esther took pictures of her friend’s children. Time passed, and before long she was taking pictures of the weddings of her friends’ children. Esther was especially good at taking pictures of children and insects-and nature in general."

Another Peoria artist, Ellen Galusha Smith, born in 1849, was the wife of traveling lecturer William Hawley Smith. "Ellen was interested in psychic phenomena and told of having dreamed that the famous painter James McNeill Whistler would guide her as she painted. She got up, donned her painter’s smock, and worked on the picture all night. In the morning, she said she had felt his hand on hers. Her painting was exhibited by the Peoria Art League at the Madison Theater, where it created quite a stir. Although the location of that painting is unknown, another of Ellen’s works will be in the show," Lyons said.

The exhibit also will include information on artists whose works haven’t been found, she said. "Lucia Coyner is one of them. In the mid-1880s, Lucia joined her husband, a homeopathic physician, on a trip to Europe. Dr. Coyner went to Munich to perfect his study in medicine, and Lucia went to Paris to study art. While she was there, she entered a painting in the prestigious Paris Salon of 1888, and it was accepted. The name of the painting was ’Nature Morte.’ She may have studied at the Julian Academy in Paris, where many American women studied art, and she might have known women painters like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, who worked in Paris at that time. When she returned to Peoria, her work was hailed. She had become, the Journal Star reported, ’a magnificent landscape painter.’"

Lyons said though their works often are under-appreciated, women made a direct contribution to Peoria’s culture, economy, and academic institutions. "Every opportunity we get, we need to hear more about Peoria women’s history. The exhibit offers viewers a unique opportunity to see the work of some of these women and to learn about their experiences and their contributions to the community. I hope it’ll awaken curiosity about women artists from earlier generations and stimulate fresh research and writing about local women artists. Since 1970, the market has opened up for women, making it possible for them to plan a career as an artist. Yet as emissaries from New York City’s Guerrilla Girls pointed out in a talk they gave at Bradley University last month, ’Less than 5 percent of the artists in the modern art sections at the Metropolitan Museum are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are women.’"

Several workshops for women and girls are planned to coincide with the exhibit:

Lyons said the work involved in putting together the Peoria Women in the Arts exhibit has been well worth the time. "It’s been wonderful for me to have the opportunity to do the research, find the art, and be able to work on the design of the gallery space. The Guild’s mission is to educate, and that’s what the historical look at creative Peoria women will do."

The Kottemann Collection
From Marc Chagall to Jean Arp, Sol Lewitt to Wolf Kahn, George and Norma Kottemann have amassed one of the finest art collections in central Illinois. More than 200 pieces of art grace their home and yard; 50 works from the collection-including sculpture, glass, ceramics, and paintings-will be displayed at the Guild. The exhibition is especially noteworthy because it’s the last time Peorians will have a chance to see the works together in Peoria; the Kottemanns are donating their collection to the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

The Kottemanns began collecting art more than 30 years ago. They’ve been, as George said, "very selective" in their purchases. "We’ve collected from significant artists, based on the size of the work we can accommodate in our yard and our home and the cost."

Their first acquisitions were sculptural works. As George was an orthodontist, he was familiar with the soldering and welding and other processes artists use in making 3-D works. As Norma said, "George has a good eye for the work. He understands the concepts."

Front doorplates made by Peoria’s Nita Sunderland were their first purchase. Over the years, they’ve traveled throughout the world to look at and acquire works. The Kottemanns have made it a point to get to know the artists. "In 1976 in a museum in Berlin," George said, "we saw a George Rickey sculpture and liked it. When we got back home, we contacted Rickey and went to visit him in Albany, N.Y. We had lunch with him and sat next to the piece we liked in his backyard."

The Kottemanns established another tradition. When a new sculpture arrived in Peoria for an installation, the artist came too. Richard Hunt, John Henry, and Bruce White are some of the artists who have accompanied their work to the city. And George always opened a bottle of champagne to toast the installation. "George Rickey couldn’t be here for the installation," he said, "so I put a bottle of champagne next to his sculpture, took a picture, and sent it to him with a note saying that we were thinking of him."

The Kottemann collection is eclectic; George said the most they have of one artist’s work is three pieces. "The Art Guild exhibit is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to see works by leading artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Joseph Albers, Sam Francis, Henry Moore, and Harry Bertoia," he said. "A number of glass pieces, of which Norma is particularly fond, will be on display as well."

Regarding their decision to donate their collection to the University of Central Florida, George explained, "The University of Central Florida will keep it together, and it will be used for education purposes. Rob Reedy, who headed the art department at Bradley University for a number of years, directs the art school at UCF today. The campus is new; there’s no art. They have 850 art students and about 41,000 students overall-and they have a 1,300-square-foot gallery where our collection will be on permanent display."

He said it wasn’t easy to find a home for so many pieces of sculpture. "Hardly anyone is going to take and display the whole collection of more than 200 works. That’s why we’re so pleased with our arrangements with UCF. Some pieces will stay in Peoria, however-Nita Sunderland’s sculpture at Lakeview, a work at Bradley-and we’re giving our Bruce White piece to the Art Guild."

On June 12, George Kottemann will talk about the art of collecting. Following his talk, a representative from art auction house Sotheby’s will be available at the Art Guild to appraise works brought in by the public.

The Kottemanns are pleased that their collection will be displayed at the Guild, and the feeling is mutual. Lyons said, "They’re the nicest, most genuinely good people you could ever want to meet. Their eye for art is exceptional, their contributions to our community are immeasurable, and they’ve added their thought and talents to a wide variety of projects." AA!