Four area artists find inspiration and meaning in cast-aside objects.
You might call them past their prime: an aging thrift-store sweater, a beat-up old piano, a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, a half-used can of paint. But for some, it’s the objects left curbside that are most intriguing. Deriving new meaning in the hands of artists, “found objects” become threads for works anew, canvases for stories yet to be told. By drawing beauty from the scrap pile, these four Peoria artists prove that “reduce, reuse, recycle” can also be a fruitful formula for art.
The Abstract Recycler
Gene Mialkowski may have been born an artist, but he didn’t admit it until 2001. Following a difficult divorce, the carpenter and erstwhile hippie set out to reprioritize his life’s goals, and began taking Preston Jackson’s Sunday-night sculpture classes. He recalls an assignment where everyone was challenged to repurpose steel from Jackson’s scrap pile.
“There was a whole line of us… fooling around with the found objects and trying to figure out what a ‘nice’ sculpture is,” Mialkowski recalls. “After a short while, I had a combination that I thought looked good.” After making a few tweaks, he took the piece to Jackson for welding, and just like that, he was hooked.
After that first piece, Mialkowski began honing his technique—bending steel by hand and by vise. “I just start bending and twisting, and I let the piece talk to me,” he explains. “[I] make every component, every… lineal inch of the bend, beautiful and flowing with movement.” Then he puts his work to the test—laying it on the ground to examine from every angle. “If it’s beautiful in all the positions, then it’s done.”
Mialkowski calls himself a “21st-century folk artist,” likening his abstract, non-representational work to clouds in the sky. “You can see everything [in it],” he muses. “People are meaning-making machines… We see whatever the heart wants to see in there.”
Though best-known for his steel sculptures, Mialkowski’s artwork spans beyond metal, incorporating a range of found objects and materials. For one, there’s his used toothbrush series—old, disinfected toothbrushes manipulated into various shapes through boiling, bending and twisting. Then there’s his much larger “Legal Paint Disposal” project.
Proclaiming distaste for what he deems a highly consumptive, wasteful culture, Mialkowski set out to find a way to reuse old paint—and make a powerful artistic statement in the process. Current state guidelines mandate that all paint headed to the landfill must be dried out, he explains. Outraged by the idea of adding needlessly to landfills, Mialkowski says, “The whole idea is not just the end result of how to get rid of paint, but where it begins: how do we purchase materials? That’s what I’ve been saying my entire career: let’s be mindful of what we’re doing, how we’re using [materials], the quality of materials, the quantity of materials.”
Mialkowski began putting his hoarded paint—a collection of used cans from various contract jobs, neighbors and friends—to new use. He built an armature, onto which he strategically placed the toppling cans, paint drying as it slowly pours from them.
The first installation—four feet tall and three feet wide—took nearly a year to complete. It’s only one of many in a series he hopes will spark change and perhaps even inspire a better recycling program in central Illinois. “It’s a whole lifestyle, a whole mindset—there’s no way I can communicate all of that,” he admits. “But if I can communicate one little thing in a big way… [that] is one of my goals,” he says, envisioning a regional “Legal Paint Disposal” art contest.
In the meantime, he remains busy imagining other uses for discarded items: a tequila-bottle cap, a pile of deck wood, and endless scrap metal—all fodder for Mialkowski, who can often be seen driving around town with sculptures in the back of his pick-up truck, fishing for smiles from passersby. If his art can do that, he declares, “that is reason enough to do it.”
See more of Mialkowski’s art at geneosart.com, or visit him on First Fridays at Studio 825 at 825 SW Adams.
The Repurposing Musician
It was never Tom Sander’s plan to join the family business. His father, Greg, has been tuning and repairing pianos for half a century, following in the footsteps of his father, Zeke, a prominent Peoria musician and player in the original house band for WMBD Radio. Sander, a visual communication major, had other dreams. But when the economic downturn of 2008 found him laid-off, he was determined to use his design background in a new way.
While studying the piano trade at a school in Minnesota, he began noticing an abundance of old pianos on Craigslist. Sander recalls the ads: “‘Kids are grown; not playing the piano anymore; need it to go to a good home.’
“Pianos, for most people, have been in the family for a generation or two—or three in some cases… They don’t want it to just go anywhere. But you can’t haul it out to the curb, and no one recycles them. So, people are kind of in a bind.” Unlike most modern furniture or a broken stereo that’s easily discarded, pianos represent real nostalgia, he adds.
While pondering this, he had an idea. Why not find a meaningful way to pass along one family’s prized piano to someone new? Upon his return to Peoria, Sander would “rescue” unneeded pianos, repair them and offer them for resale—and with that, Keys of Hope was born. After mapping out the concept, the project escalated rather quickly. He reached out to Teen Challenge, a nonprofit, faith-based addiction recovery program, to host the service within its thrift store at Olive and Jefferson. A portion of each sale would go to support the organization, and donors could take comfort knowing their old piano was in good hands.
“We let them know that it’s in a house now, for example, with three young girls who are learning on the piano,” he explains. “It gives them some closure, and it also generates steady revenue for Teen Challenge. As a byproduct, every piano we sold needed someone to tune it, so it’s helped me build my business.”
After conducting an initial assessment, if the keys and other vital parts are in good working condition, Sander will try to resell the instrument. But not every piano can be saved. “Even if it’s absolutely stunning and beautiful and from the turn of the century—if a piano is a wreck on the inside from lack of maintenance, it’s no different than a vintage car that’s been neglected,” he explains. Cue phase two of Sander’s program.
Tapping his design skills, he began creating concepts for the pianos and parts that couldn’t be sold. Anything’s game: a full scale of keys, or just one or two placed abstractly into a frame; pedals or strings positioned over a sheet of music. A baby grand becomes a full-sized desk; an upright, a basement bar. Some projects are more time-consuming. Sander’s specialty clocks, for example, employ a dozen hammers of varying sizes, starting small at one o’clock and growing progressively larger. Another top seller, the aptly-named “Keys of Hope Chests,” features cut piano keys mounted atop vintage cigar boxes lined with fabric—the perfect gift for a piano player or teacher, he notes.
Keys of Hope is now three years old, and Sander wants to expand the recycled-art component of the program. He’s looking for additional space, as well as skilled craftsmen with design or woodworking skills—and a heart for service.
“This has been one of the neatest things I’ve ever been involved in,” Sander says. “I can do my professional work on a piano, but I can also satisfy my creative side, [help] a not-for-profit, and maybe provide a benefit to someone trying to get rid of a cherished family heirloom. It’s just amazing that it turned out to be a win-win-win-win.”
Learn more about Sander’s art and piano service at sanderpianoservice.com.
The Versatile Reclaimer
April Lynn Thompson is a master with a pen—but that’s not all. Seeing her work as a single collection is confusing at first: with mediums so varied, they must be the work of several different artists. Drawing or painting; charcoal, watercolor, acrylic or pastel; abstract, landscape or portrait: “I’m kind of versatile,” she says shyly.
Growing up in Peoria, Thompson has been pursuing art since she was a kid, honing her skills through high school and later in college. When she returned to the area, she began working at the Re- Store in Peoria Heights, a recycled/reclaimed, earth-friendly store that closed last year. But the shop’s specialty recycled items and quirky statement pieces had a lasting effect, she explains, inspiring her as an artist.
“[It] got me thinking: what can I do with recycled and reclaimed materials?” Eager to branch into new mediums, Thompson began designing her artwork around the reuse of found objects, and friends started giving her materials—from old barn wood to puzzles with missing pieces. “They were just going to get discarded. Instead, I hung onto them and knew I would find a use for them.”
And so, Thompson started tinkering. In one piece, she repurposed a scarf-holder ring. “I didn’t know where it was going, but I knew I wanted to do something with [it],” she explains. “I pulled the threads off… and started melting the plastic, and it started turning into birds bathing in the rain”—a mixed-media work. That plastic crept its way into other pieces as well, including one of her more abstract canvases: a vibrant acrylic centered around three rings, an orb of royal blue spitting from the painting’s center and fading into greens, then yellows.
In another piece, Thompson found purpose in the remains of an old drawing. “I didn’t want to discard it, so I ended up using the ashes,” she says. The canvas is split into three color blocks—cool, warm, and black and white—the ashes spread across each section as if bursting from a centrifugal explosion. “It’s called ‘A New Life.’”
Thompson also creates mosaic puzzle constructs—labor-intensive works of layered puzzle pieces arranged over reclaimed wood. The concept was unintentional, she explains. “I knocked over a puzzle on top of a piece of wood, and it just kind of came to me: a ‘happy little accident,’ like Bob Ross,” she laughs. But the results are far from accidental.
“I go through multiple puzzles and separate them by color and hue,” she explains. “I actually lay out my first layer, then a second, third and sometimes fourth. I do all of this on the floor on my hands and knees, because you have to be able to stand away from it to see the whole thing.”
She then applies adhesive to each piece and painstakingly sets it back into place, layer by layer. The resulting three-by-one-foot mosaics can require a full week of non-stop work. “It’s very time-consuming,” she says, “but it comes out pretty nice.”
Thompson works out of a space at Studio 825 on Southwest Adams, where she exhibits on First Fridays and teaches weekday classes in as many mediums as she can muster interest in. “I do love my new little niche,” she says. “I really like the idea of reusing materials. Even if it’s something [simple] like paper, I think people can find a use for it. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t,” she adds simply.
The Reconstructing Fiber Artist
The model may squirm under the fabric—an unconventional, knotty burlap—but the 18th-century French royal court dress is gorgeous, its material manipulated into stately, ruffled layers that look soft as lace from afar. Its creator, Dana Baldwin, states the obvious: “It’s made out of burlap, so it’s uncomfortable.
“I guess it was an expression of my life at that time,” she adds, recalling the discomfort of her dissolving marriage. A self-taught fiber artist, Baldwin moved from Virginia back to her hometown of Peoria after the divorce. Though she’d always wanted to pursue art, “practicality” won out on the east coast, where she was a registered dietician with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition. “For so long, I never asked myself, ‘Why am I even on this path… if it’s not really what I want to be doing?’” During the transition, Baldwin came to terms with her old dream. “I’m really an artist—that’s what I am,” she remembers thinking. “Either you do this now, or you don’t.”
Returning to Peoria, Baldwin launched her business, Designs by Dana, online and committed to pursuing fiber art. Her elaborate dresses are made freehand, without patterns. “They’re my space from reality,” she offers. Besides her unconventional gowns, she applies found materials—bubble wrap, curling ribbon, safety pins and thrift-store finds—to other clothing as well, like her collection of sweatercoats.
For each coat, Baldwin accumulates some 20 or 30 old sweaters from resale shops to break down and sew back together again. The unique statement pieces make women feel special, she explains, and “each coat has a story.” When canvassing used clothing stores, she admits she has little idea what she’s looking for—it depends on what’s available—but relies on an “intuitive sense of color” to pair texture and hue; a gorgeous teal wool might pair beautifully with a variety of purple knits, she muses.
“The whole process is intuitive,” she continues. “I used to think, ‘Oh, I’m not really an artist; I’m not really a designer,’ because I could never sit down and sketch out what I want to do… I can’t work like that at all. It’s like being thrown in a lake and told to swim… it just happens. It’s a magical thing, really, when I stop and think about it.”
It was these sweatercoats that reacquainted Baldwin with longtime family friend and renowned Peoria artist Maryruth Ginn, who passed away suddenly this spring. Ginn had been a friend of Baldwin’s mother, another local artist. She recalls their first meeting: “One day, she came over to the house. She was wearing red, high-top tennis shoes and red lipstick, and pulled up in a jeep, and I just thought she was the coolest lady. I wanted to be just like her.”
Enamored with Baldwin’s coats, Ginn offered to help create a promotional video to showcase her work. That’s when the two discovered they had a very similar aesthetic. “It was like we could communicate by telepathy,” Baldwin says. “I’ve never been on such the same wavelength with anyone in my life. It was the most beautiful relationship two friends could have.”
The pair decided to open The Sheared Edge at Studios on Sheridan to promote the fiber arts. “We were so busy… that we never talked about her past or other art,” Baldwin adds. But when the family gave her a key to Ginn’s house to gather artwork in preparation for a show honoring her memory, she uncovered a trove of treasures. “I had no idea she was so prolific and that she had mastered so many mediums,” Baldwin declares. “She was a combination of Tasha Tudor and Grandma Moses, Picasso and Michelangelo, all wrapped into one—a legend in her own time.”
Baldwin continues to create beauty from the unexpected, discovering the potential in each found material. And she’s determined to continue the mission she and Ginn began, changing the way people perceive the fiber arts—including knitting, one of her favorite techniques.
“Knitting has such a bad rap,” she explains. “People look at it as: ‘It’s just crafty,’ ‘It’s something that grandmas do’… [or] ‘It’s that cheap Walmart yarn.’ But it’s so much more than that.” Through her work, Baldwin hopes to reshow what the fiber arts can be—true masterpieces—even when created from discarded materials. “There’s beauty in everything,” she says. “It just has to be drawn out.” a&s