I had driven past Normal, Illinois many times before. Hell, half the country has—it’s at the crossroads of I-55 and I-74. I had only seen the town from the interstate until my first show there almost 10 years ago.
My first 12 hours or so in Normal were worrisome. Crumbling streets, closed restaurants and the worst hotel I had ever seen in my life.
Let me illustrate it this way: to cover a toilet seat with toilet paper before using it is one thing—in fact it’s a pretty common practice among the ladies as I understand it. But, for a guy to do so before STANDING to use it—well, that’s a whole other level.
The morning of the show was ungodly hot and I was setting up my trusty EZ-UP (“Easy Down” as they call it if a rainstorm with some wind comes by). I ducked into the coffee shop behind me and asked for a coffee and a roll.
“What kind of roll?”
“I don’t know, any kind—just grab one please and I’ll get back to setting up right outside the door.”
(Hands on hips) “I’m not going to pick your breakfast for you!”
What I had go myself into on that morning? I had driven 5 hours, stayed in a hotel that badly needed a priest and a barrel of holy water, and nearly got into a fist fight with an anger-drenched coffee shop diva. Needless to say, I was worried about what I was up against.
The sun beat down like a drunken stepfather and the crowd literally poured into the street. I had never seen such a crowd in such a small space since the rumor got started that I was to be escorted out of Des Moines. Thousands of people were at that Sugar Creek show that year!
But here’s the point: they were not only knowledgeable and savvy regarding art, they were interested and they were buying. Not complimenting, not thanking the artists, not saying they didn’t have wall space—they were buying, collecting, and cherishing!
My very first customers in Normal, Anne and Wendy, went nuts over my paintings and they are still great supporters of my work! Anne came back to see me this year yet again! Wendy could not make it because she was in Michigan—but get this: another one of her friends came by and purchased a painting for her as a present because she knew how much Wendy loved collecting my paintings! There are others: the fantastic family from Morton who come see me every year, the social worker from south of town, and many more!
This town loves art, loves their art festival, and they really admire and respect the artists that visit their town!
Fast forward to Sugar Creek 2010. . .
Doug Johnson and the MCAC (McLean County Art Center) are still running things. He knows just when to get involved and when to step back. Always friendly and approachable, but just distant enough to keep an eye on everything. He’s an artist and he thinks like one, a good one. There are always new ideas and angles from him.
The volunteers are enthusiastic and friendly, too. Not that fake friendly stuff; they really want to be helpful. They actually seem brokenhearted each time someone says “No, thanks.”
The town has gone through an impressive, and major, renovation. This town has gone from a dingy, dirty, crumbling midwestern truck stop to a beautiful budding city. The arterials are no longer looking like gravel roads. The “uptown” area near Illinois State University is cleaned up, fixed up and built up. New buildings, new streets, flowers, trash bins, everything is first class and the people of Normal seem to reflect that.
Sunday night I was waiting for friends to finish up so we could go to dinner at Medici’s (a really nice place, go there if you are ever in Normal). I was watching people filter in from the parking areas to go to the movie theatre. Who has a renovated movie theatre in their downtown area anymore? While I was waiting, I got to visit with a policeman who was walking the area. He was very proud of his city as well. A great town with great people going through some great changes.
Sales at the show? It’s never been known for large items, but I saw some go by. One artist who I really do not respect very much sold a large painting and I was actually happy for him. My photographer friends did very well. This is the midwest, so abstract doesn’t do quite as well here as in other venues.
I sold a lot of smaller work. A LOT of smaller work. This year they really responded well to original work on paper from me. A traditional glass artist I know did very well, another one who is more modern and abstract in her design did not fare as good. No one was in tears, no one was throwing stuff around and cursing at the end of the show.
I’m not going to address the weather—it’s July in Illinois, for crying out loud. The show is extremely well organized and you have to be in a coma or the cemetery to not know about it. It’s not a carnival or a circus—the focus is on art and they have the support of the people that live there. I turn a nice profit every year and I feel welcome because of the customers and friends I have made there.
These people have gone through a lot to make their town a nice place to live and it is a privilege to come see them at their spring show and their arts festival every year. They appreciate and support artists at the art center and at the patron level. . . I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Thanks for another great show!
To hear more about John’s experiences and see his work, check out his website.
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