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Canton-based organization is expanding access to art in Fulton County

Fulton County Arts co-founders Chris Rabe and Derek Doyle.
Camryn Cutinello
Fulton County Arts co-founders Chris Rabe and Derek Doyle.

An organization in Canton is hoping to expand interest in the arts in Fulton County.

Co-founder of Fulton County Arts Chris Rabe said they started the organization because their local farmers market was produce-only, meaning artists couldn’t be included.

The volunteer-run organization hosts art fairs, which give artists from all mediums a place to showcase and sell their work.

“We also include nonprofit organizations, so different human service organizations,” Rabe said. “We found that their mission was really close to ours, and that they wanted to reach out to the community members and you know, how do they reach out to them? Rural areas are very dispersed. So we thought this is a great opportunity for everybody to be able to come together: nonprofits, community members [and] artists.”

Co-founder Derek Doyle said the only rule is that art showcased in the fair needs to be handmade. Mediums exhibited range from tie-dye to painting to gardening. There is no fee to participate in the fair.

They’ve hosted 12 gatherings so far, and say this has been their most successful year since they started in 2019.

Doyle said people often don’t know what to expect from the gatherings.

“It either had to be a fine show, or it had to be as casual as a vendor's flea market show, there was no in between,” he said. “And we're like, no, it's possible, and it's gonna be free. We're not gonna charge you to review applications. And this is a tough concept for a lot of people.”

Rabe and Doyle both said they want to gain more community support for the organization and the arts in general. They host Community Action Public Forums to hear feedback and share their message.

“It’s looking at art, again, as a community asset, not like a form of entertainment,” Doyle said. “I think that's been our biggest struggle with trying to communicate with the community. And so to get them on board, it's more of a communication barrier.”

The Shoppes at Grand Prairie donated a storefront to serve as their physical location. They display work by local artists at the site.

Rabe said accessing resources is often the biggest struggle for the arts in rural communities.

“There's a lot of poverty, which is what's really tied into our mission. And that was something that we recognized where rural areas didn't have as many resources, people were all widely dispersed,” she said. “And so having people come out to our event and having the art desk, which is another project we've recently had, where it's just a free range of different mediums that anybody can explore right then and there.”

Doyle said raising enough money to keep the gatherings going has also been a struggle for the organization. They originally set out to host the fairs monthly, and hope to get back to that.

Grants through groups such as Illinois Humanities help. Partnerships like one they have with Illinois Art Station expands their reach.

Illinois Art Station is a statewide group based in Normal which offers classes for all ages.

Executive director Hannah Johnson said that people believe the arts will always be there, and that mentality can lead to them disappearing.

“There seems to be kind of this ubiquitous, maybe it's an assumption, that the arts will always be there,” Johnson said. “And so there isn't as much intentional effort from you know, municipal levels or otherwise, to continue to reinforce it.”

Illinois Art Station Executive Director Hannah Johnson and Education Coordinator Joey Hatch.
Camryn Cutinello
Illinois Art Station Executive Director Hannah Johnson and Education Coordinator Joey Hatch.

Central Illinois has multiple options for people to access art, but transportation and geographical barriers makes it difficult to expand them into rural communities statewide.

“When you think about population density, there isn't always that critical mass to ensure that these initiatives are sustainable,” Johnson said. “So there might be an artist and community who can do as much as they can, right but it's one person looking to support an entire sector.”

Education coordinator Joey Hatch said creating and interacting with art is beneficial for people of all ages, but is especially important for younger kids.

“It's about the learning process. It's about learning that if I mix these two colors together, and I do this again, and again, and again, I'm always going to get the same results,” she said. “It's about learning some of those really early literacy skills that we don't even think of.”

Hatch said something as simple as learning the top and bottom of a piece of paper helps kids with vocabulary and lays a foundation for the future. She said exposing kids to art when they're young means they’ll continue to seek them out.

People interact with art daily, but they might not realize they do so.

“They have these cool backpacks. They read cool comic books, or all the videos and things that they watch. All of that was touched by an artist in some way,” she said. “And so exposing kids to artists that come from areas like them, that look like them, that think like them, that are into the same cool things. Being exposed to those cool art tools and being exposed to those cool art people. It is a long road of happiness.”

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.