Portraits of Peoria offers a high-tech glimpse of local history
High-tech history will come to life in the city’s downtown on Saturday morning when the Peoria Public Library (107 NE Monroe St.) goes “live” with a series of augmented-reality “Portraits of Peoria” murals adorning the building’s façade. In all, eight local artists contributed large scale portrait installations created to honor and help educate the public about the diverse and notable contributions of people who called Peoria their home.
Beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 15, and continuing for at least the next year, passersby will be able to utilize a free, specially designed phone application that scans the murals in order to access videos of local thespians presenting first-person perspectives of the famous Peorians. Many of the people portrayed-- such as Bradley University founder Lydia Moss Bradley, famous feminist Betty Friedan and Jim and Marian Jordan of “Fibber McGee and Molly” old-time radio fame-- are well known to longtime Peorians, while some-- such as the late Caterpillar executive Robert Gilmore and freed enslaved woman Nance Legins-Costley-- may be lesser known.
“This program is historic. It is quite literally putting Peoria on the map thanks to the union of art and technology,” said Dr. Mae Gilliland Wright, executive director of Big Picture Peoria.
The Saturday debut of the groundbreaking combination of art and technology will be attended by many of the artists, actors and developers behind the exhibit, which is sponsored by the library along with Big Picture Peoria. Also expected to attend and make remarks are State Sen. David Koehler and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth. The public is invited to a reception in the library’s lower level art gallery following the exhibit’s official unveiling at 10 AM.
“This began with two murals that were already in downtown Peoria; one of Betty Friedan, who wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” and one of Dr. Romeo B. Garrett, the first Black president of Bradley University. Those two murals went up and the public loved them, and we were looking for a way to expand the program. That’s how we got to this current incantation of the Portraits of Peoria program,” Gilliland Wright explained.
When an opportunity to expand and improve the mural program presented itself, Gilliland Wright reached out to Peoria Public Library executive director Randall Yelverton with an offer.
“When Big Picture Peoria approached us about this partnership, we were honored and immediately understood that these murals, which marry art, history and technology, would have the perfect home here at (the) Main Library,” Yelverton said. “We love our new look, and we’re so grateful to Big Picture Peoria for including us in their journey to bring more public art to Peoria.”
When it came time to relocate the Friedan and Garrett murals-- which were previously affixed to a downtown building that had been sold to new owners-- the idea to add an augmented reality component was hatched. “This is something you really don’t see, especially in downstate Illinois,” said Gilliland Wright. “We had unveiled one augmented reality mural previously at the Metro Center, but the idea of adding that to these murals would allow us to bring history to life.”
Those interested in checking out the high-tech murals can pre-load their android or iPhone with a free “Portraits of Peoria” app that can be used to scan the individual QR codes associated with each artwork before arriving at the library. Library personnel will also be on hand on Saturday to offer help installing the app.
“When you point your phone at the mural, it will bring up a video of the person in the mural. Thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, we were able to hire local actors to portray the subjects in the mural,” said Gilliland Wright. “We also hired local developers and programmers to create this app, teaming up with several people from Bradley University. It’s really exciting in that you get to learn more about the person through interaction with your phone.”
The significant Peorians depicted in the eight murals, and their local artists, are Lydia Moss Bradley (by Connie Andrews); Nance Legins-Costley (by Preston Jackson); Betty Friedan (by Eliza von Zerneck); Valeska Hinton (by Brenda Pagan); Jim and Marian Jordan or “Fibber McGee and Molly” (by Bob Doucette); Annie Turnbo Malone (by Trish Williams); Dr. Romeo B. Garrett (by Kevin Bradford); and Robert “Bob” Gilmore (by Jeremy Berkley).
Local performing actors portraying the mural subjects include former WCBU Radio personality and storyteller Lee Wenger as Bob Gilmore, and award winning actor Ronnie Hudson II as Romeo B. Garrett. The non-profit Big Picture Peoria (www.bigpicturepeoria.org) began in 2018 with the mission of using art and creativity as a driver to build a thriving and vibrant community. The Portraits of Peoria Augmented Reality component is funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois. Mural support comes from Sharon and John Amdall with program support from Discover Peoria and the City of Peoria. It is supported partially by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.