Couple find their niche in local art scene

DeWayne Bartels
John Humphries, an artist-in-residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts, and Erin Zellerfrow, a fellow artist-in-residence, work on a Vandercook Press. The pair had never used a press before coming to the center. Now, they both say it is being incorporated into the artistic endeavors.

When Joe and Michele Richey decided to get involved in the local art scene they took a big plunge.

The Germantown Hills couple decided to turn a good deal of the space in their Peoria business — Tri-City Machine Works — into studio space for artists.

But, the couple did not stop there. When the house next door to theirs went on the market they bought the house and converted it into living space and more studio space for visiting artists.

Now, the couple oversees an artist-in-residence program drawing people from all over the country to a retreat to get away from it all and concentrate on their art.

From the president’s lips

Michele Richey is president of the Prairie Center of the Arts.

“We are for the arts. We lobby for the arts,” Richey said.

She said for she and her husband showing a commitment to the arts meant more than going to shows or writing a check. They wanted to really be involved. They wanted to do something new and innovative.

During a trip to North Carolina in 2003 they visited an artist-in-residence program.

“We had no idea they run artists communities,” Richey said.

“We decided we had a big building we needed to get artists in.”

The program started with local artists because the Richeys had no place to house visiting artists.

“Then one day we found out the neighbor next door wanted to sell his house. It has seven bedrooms,” Richey said.

Richey said it was ideal. An artist-in-residence program for out-of-town artists was born.

Quiet and nitty-gritty

For Erin Zellerfrow of Rochester, N.Y., and John Humphries of Cincinnati the experience as an artist-in-residence has been a joyful one.

Zellerfrow arrived June 1. “I got here by networking and word-of-mouth,” she said.

“What I love is the facilities, the house and the flexibility. The support has been great and the time to just create.”

Zellerfrow said the aesthetics of the Peoria studios has been incredibly inspiring for her.

But, the Germantown Hills house is more than just a place to lay her head, Zellerfrow said.

“It’s much more than that. The house is a place where I can write. I ride my bike out there everyday. It’s so quiet. People actually wave at me, ” she said.

“It’s nice to split my time between both places. I also like being in the nitty-gritty of downtown, but going back to Germantown Hills to live.”

Zellerfrow came to Peoria not knowing much about the area. She has been surprised.

“The art community here is pretty great. People outside the area scoff at that notion,” she said. “It’s great. There’s no lack of things to do here.”

That is part of the reason Zellerfrow has accepted a job as program manager and plans to make Central Illinois her home.


Humphries said, like Zellerfrow, he learned of the program through word-of-mouth.

What sold him on this program was the freedom it offered.

“This seemed less regimented than many other programs,” Humphries said.

But, unlike Zellerfrow, he likes spending his time at the Germantown Hills house working in its studio space.

Humphries arrived July 1.

“It has been great here. I went away to get separated from the daily things I do. Here I totally lose track of time.”

Humphries said he was looking for isolation and has found it.

New experiences

Zellerfrow and Humphries, while conducting a tour of the Peoria facilities headed straight to the basement and a print shop for the artists.

“This is amazing,” Humphries said as he gathered letters to use on a Vandercook press, something neither of them had worked with before.

“I’m incorporating it into my paintings.”

Zellerfrow nodded in agreement.  

“It’s kind of addictive,” she said.

Humphries is using his time here to break tradition.

“Tradition holds that painting is a two-dimensional art form trying to convey a three dimensional feeling,” he said.

Humphries is using his time to perfect a method using wood to add a real third dimension to his paintings.

“It looks like a drawing trying to put itself together,” he said.

But, he is not stopping there.

He is also working with sounds to bring another dimension to his paintings.

“This residency has allowed me to experiment,” he said.

Zellerfrow is concentrating on portraiture.

One of her projects involves images of women woven into the fabric of used tea bags.

She is using the names of people in her family and going on the Internet to find pictures of women from the ’60s and ’70s.

“It’s kind of voyeuristic. I find photos I like that remind me of memories from my youth,” she said.

“At first it was just for me. But, I found as time went on I wanted people to see the awkwardness or beauty of the work and apply it to their own memories.”