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Sky Art Peoria uses billboards to showcase local artists

Sky Art Peoria showcases local art across the Peoria area.
ArtsPartners of Central Illinois
Sky Art Peoria showcases local art across the Peoria area.

Driving around Peoria, it’s hard to miss the “big art” billboards that grace the sides of the roads that intertwine across the county. A typical display features a piece of art, the artist’s name and a little blue box in the corner that shows what made all of it happen.

That blue box belongs to Sky Art Peoria, an initiative dedicated to promoting local artists and their work through the use of these billboards. What started as a program called ArtPop has turned into a presentation of all that the area’s art scene has to offer.

“It’s really grown and blossomed into a beautiful opportunity and we 'wanna see more and more of our local art on display and help beautify our skyline as we’re driving through these cities to be able to see local creativity on display,” said Sky Art Peoria chair Everley Davis.

Peoria was first involved with ArtPop in order to showcase local art throughout the city, similar to what Sky Art Peoria does now. However, when ArtPop began to grow nationally, chapters across the nation had to pay a fee to participate. With a thriving art scene already established, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois figured it could do it on its own.

Sky Art, which is housed underneath ArtsPartners’ array of programs, got the opportunity to display artists on billboards through a local philanthropy — billboards that would have otherwise been vacant or taken up by yet another advertisement. Instead, they replaced the ads with art, and gave local artists a way to promote their work.

“Putting art on there was a way to get their name out there, to help us feel good about our city and to take up space that wasn’t really being used before,” Davis said.

Art is chosen through a robust submission process. Every year, artists pick up to two pieces of work to submit on the Sky Art Peoria website and a panel of community judges anonymously decides their favorites. The winning pieces go up in June and are rotated throughout the community on a two-year cycle. There is a $20 submission fee, and submissions close on April 21.

For 2024, Sky Art Peoria is once again opening the submissions up to high school students. The submission fee for students is waived, and Davis hopes to have at least two billboards dedicated to students’ work.

“We’re really trying to push to have young people have their work on display,” Davis said. “I mean imagine what that does to a kid’s confidence and self esteem, and [it] really encourages them that I can do that, too.”

Davis said the program can provide more than $30,000 in advertising for artists, so it’s worth it to submit something regardless of how confident you feel in your work. She said many past winners didn’t expect to win when they submitted, even shouting out a local photographer who now sells his work on the side because of the traction he gained from the contest.

“If you’re hesitant, that means that there’s at least half a thought there and you should go ahead and do it,” Davis said. “You never know what can happen.”

Davis added the one hiccup artists may experience when submitting is formatting the size and shape of their image. To help with this, Sky Art Peoria is hosting a tutorial from 5-6 p.m April 10 in the Preston Jackson Gallery at the Contemporary Arts Center. Former winner Natalie Jackson will host while also giving tips to help your work stand out.

“It does help these blossoming or experimenting artists really build that confidence and establish themselves and get some people looking at their art and wanting to collect it,” Davis said.

The locations of the billboards vary and change often as space becomes available. Right now, you can see one driving down Knoxville Avenue next to Lou’s Drive-In, and in East Peoria as you approach Illinois Central College. Other locations are spread out across the county; a full map can be found on the Sky Art Peoria website.

Beautifying the area and showcasing local artists are why Sky Art Peoria exists in the first place, and Davis encourages everyone to take the leap and submit.

“Just do it,” Davis said. “Even if you don’t think it’s that great, someone else might really appreciate it. You never know what your piece of art is going up against when it comes down to the judges.”

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.