Behind the closed metal doors inside the Murray Center for the Arts reside a wealth of creative minds and beautiful works of art. Over the past two decades, many a local artist has carved out a home in this old industrial building. Now, ceramic artists Jacob Grant and Susie Mathews are creating their own unique niche.

Located within the maze of creative dwellings on the Murray Center’s fourth floor, Wheel Art Pottery Studios offers a space for experienced ceramic artists to come, work, create and brainstorm. In addition to serving as a co-op, in which member artists pay a monthly fee to use the studio and share the costs of supplies, Wheel Art is also gearing up to offer small classes for beginning and intermediate students.

The Seed is Planted
While the co-op got its start last summer, the seed of the idea had been planted much earlier, when Grant and Mathews worked together at the Peoria Art Guild. Their concept was to provide an affordable, shared space for artists and freshly minted students to work and fire their ceramic pieces.

Growing up in a small, rural community, Grant found encouragement for his artistic skills somewhat lacking. But after finding support from his junior high and high school art teacher, he began his college career as an art major. Although he abandoned art for some time, he eventually returned to school, and at Eastern Illinois University in 1999, he first put his hands in clay. “It was one of the first times I had been challenged, really challenged with anything,” recalled Grant. “And that’s what hooked me in the beginning.”

Upon finishing his studies at EIU, Grant went on to complete his MFA at Bradley University in 2008. His focus was—and continues to be—utilitarian pottery. “Coming from rural Illinois, [making] something that is useful is ingrained in us,” he notes. “Here is something that I can make that is useful and art.”

While at Bradley, Grant found work as an education assistant at the Peoria Art Guild, where he helped run the daily operations of the teaching studios under Mathews’ direction. Upon graduating, he found a studio home on the fourth floor of the Murray Building, now known as the Murray Center for the Arts, not far from Wheel Art’s current location. Meanwhile, he kept in close touch with Mathews, who by this time had cut back on her teaching responsibilities after being diagnosed with MS.

A lifelong art teacher, Mathews earned her BFA at Bradley University in 2002 after teaching “nomadically” in local schools, church centers and community colleges. During her stint at the Guild, she coordinated and taught various art classes, but after her diagnosis, she dropped nearly everything else to concentrate on Wheel Art and her own artwork.

“It’s not going away,” says Mathews of her MS. “I think it makes you hunker down to what’s most important, and do [things] as well and as long as you can. All the pieces mean something more now.”

A Place and Time to Work
Grant and Mathews noticed that the same people often took the same classes at the Art Guild over and over again. Ultimately, as these students honed their skills, they would no longer need a structured class, but would flourish in an independent, self-teaching environment, if provided one. With that in mind, the two artists began dreaming of a community studio where their advanced students and other experienced potters could come and work on their own.

“At a certain point, you don’t need instruction, but a place and time to work,” says Grant. The catalyst for bringing this dream to fruition was the Art Guild’s decision to halt its educational programs in the midst of a struggling economy. “Jacob said this was the time to open our own place,” says Mathews, “and I agreed. It’s true that every closed door opens a new one.”

And so, in the spring of 2010, the two artists began searching for a space to house their proposed studio. In the meantime, Grant was teaching art at ICC, and Mathews began teaching classes out of his studio on the Murray Building’s fourth floor. In June, building owner George Murray approached the duo about a space that had just opened up not far from Grant’s. It was the ideal home for Wheel Art Pottery Studios.

Wheel Art offers the opportunity for artists to create when they can’t afford the space or equipment. In that sense, “we are like a gym,” says Mathews. Artists can come together and share a creative space, learn from one another and come home with the satisfaction of having created their own work. Each of its members, currently numbering about a dozen, has their own shelf to store clay and works in process. The studio has six wheels and a few work tables for hand building.

While no other co-ops of this kind currently exist in the area, Mathews is hopeful that other artists—painters, sculptors, photographers and the like—will consider following their lead. She believes that would encourage the growth of local artists who might not have the luxury of their own studio or are otherwise stifled by the lack of funds or equipment. And as the economy struggles to find its footing, it’s a collaborative model that would seem to make sense. a&s