On the record ... with Susan Edwards
SYCAMORE – All Susan Edwards wanted was a little shop in her backyard where she could teach basket weaving.
Meanwhile, her husband, Jim, was trying to figure out what to do with the huge ballroom of the former Elks building at the corner of Somonauk and Elm streets in Sycamore. Jim is a co-owner of the building.
“Finally one day he told me, ‘Go over there, clean that room out, get some of your friends, and start teaching classes,’” Susan Edwards recalled. “He didn’t think I would actually do it, but I did.”
A dozen years later, Susan Edwards is still in the old Elks building as executive director of the Art Attack, an art school and gallery.
In 2008, Edwards began an art walk in which local artists open their homes and studios to the general public, both to sell their work and to show the public how they work. The fifth annual walk, scheduled for Oct. 6, will include 21 locations.
Edwards sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to talk about art.
MidWeek: What can people expect when they attend the Art Walk?
Susan Edwards: There are 21 venues and over 70 artists participating. ...Most places will be easy to find. The only one that might be difficult is the Art Annex behind Small’s furniture store. Most people pull in there and say, “Where is it? Where is it?” even though I have put four signs with arrows and balloons on them. That one is fun to see because the graduate art students are in there. You can spend hours in there.
MW: Tell me about this year’s art walk.
SE: This year is our fifth annual event. I’m really excited this year because we have gotten (Northern Illinois University) to get behind it. They are actually a sponsor of the event. They will open both of their art museums, and they will have people at the museums actually doing stuff.
That’s what the art walk is all about. It’s about people going into artist studios and seeing them actually creating and getting an idea of how hard it is to create or to throw that bowl. The people get to pick the artist’s brain and then they have an idea why they did it that way. Then they have an idea why ... so when they buy this art, then they have a story behind it. It’s not just a piece of art on a wall or on a table. ...The “why” an artist does something is probably 90 percent of the art itself. When I paint, it takes me hours to figure out why and what I am painting. I can paint a painting in about two hours, but it probably took me 16 to figure out where I was going. That is an aspect (of art) that people really need to understand. That’s one of the goals of the art walk. The other thing is that most people don’t realize what fine art we have in this community. They keep saying, “Oh, but we’re a rural community,” but they don’t realize that we have 26 museum-quality artists in DeKalb County alone.
MW: Twenty-one venues is a lot to see in a day. Can people pick and choose which sites to visit, or is the tour structured?
SE: Venues are numbered and we put those numbers on a map so people can find them, and there will be signs in front of the venues so you know where you are. It is designed for you not to be able to go to all of them. I want to leave people hungry to see more next year.
MW: Is there a charge for the art walk?
SE: We worked really hard to make this free. It is a fundraiser for the Art Attack, but this year we worked hard to get sponsors so we could offer it free to the public.
What I really need people to do is attend it. If they only go to one place, that will help. If I go back to my sponsors and say, “We had 100 people last year but I only had 120 come in this year,” that’s not going to go over well. …It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we should have 1,000 people. I’m praying that we run out of brochures because that’s how many we printed, 1,000.
MW: In the five years of the art walk, have you seen any trends?
SE: It’s definitely bigger, both in terms of how many artists are participating, and it’s also growing in terms of how far away we pull people. Last year we had people from Chicago come. This year I’m quite sure we will have people from all over northern Illinois coming.
MW: Have you charged for the art walk in the past?
SE: We charged $10. The first year we did it we charged $20, and the second year we charged $10. But when I had a family of five walk in and look at paying $50 and then walk back out, I said, “OK, something has to happen.” …I don’t want (cost) to be a deterrent to people attending. I really want those sponsors to get their money’s worth.
MW: Will art be available for purchase at all 21 locations?
SE: I tell everybody that if it’s there, it’s for sale. That’s kind of the point – people need to be thinking about Christmas and birthdays and all kinds of things, and supporting the arts through their pocketbook.
MW: What is Art Attack? Is it a gallery, a learning facility or something else?
SE: The biggest one is that it’s a school of art. We teach art classes for ages 2 through adult. Most people don’t realize we have so many adult classes, and think that it’s just for kids. We have some fine art teachers who teach here. Professors of universities teach here. …We have some pretty stellar resumes teaching here.
We do bring in some NIU students and local artists from the community to come in and teach. A lot of times, they are doing as much learning as the students sitting at the table. That’s what I am all about. I want to empower everybody, the teachers and the learners. We also started, in 2008, to have an art studio for local artists. We had several studios in the area, but you had to be somebody to get into them. I wanted to have an art studio for those of us who weren’t necessarily in the “in” crowd. The funny thing is, we have everything from $5 pottery to $5,000 paintings.
MW: Tell me about the classes.
SE: We teach Make a Mess and Pee Wee Picassos for the little ones and I will tell you that Make a Mess is by far my favorite class to teach. I literally lie awake at night trying to figure out how big a mess I can make. I have this big huge tent that I made and I put the kids in there, along with their parents and me, and we paint on the tent, on ourselves, on each other and literally I have to have a bathtub for them to get washed up when we are though. …For 7- to 12-year-olds we probably have about 10 to 15 different classes. We teach pottery, kids’ drawing, sculpture, scientific drawing, filmmaking, you name it. It’s kind of the same thing for adults.
MW: What are your most popular classes?
SE: I would say pottery, across the board, is the most fun. That’s because you can’t do it at your kitchen table. …You have to have a facility like this to be able to throw. We have some excellent pottery teachers. …I have a kiln here, and then I have another one that I need to put here but I can’t because I don’t have enough room. I have a need for at least twice as many (pottery) wheels. I turn away people almost every single class period because we just don’t have enough wheels.
MW: If an artist wants to practice on his or her own without taking a class, can they still use the Art Attack?
SE: Yes, we do have what we call a punch card. They buy a punch card and then they can come in and work, usually two or three hours, and then they can come and go whenever we are open.
MW: How has Art Attack adapted to the changing economy?
SE: About a year after (we opened), I figured out that I needed to turn it into a nonprofit arts organization. When I did that, it was quite labor-intensive, to say the least, but we finally got it after about two years. Being a nonprofit has really gotten us through the lean times. We write grants to places all over the place, but it generally ends up being the local community that supports us the most.
I’d say out of the last 12 (years), about a third of them have been fairly bad. Several years ago, with the downturn in the economy, a strange thing happened. People started going back to their roots and realizing that they needed to return to the natural things. They became very interested in taking art classes. But at the same time, I had people who had been taking classes come to me and say, “Mrs. Edwards, I can’t afford to take this class anymore.” At that point I reached out to the community, and this is one of the times that our community really backed us. I asked for donations to our scholarship fund and to this date, I have never had to turn anyone down. But in the last two years I have had quite a few people knocking on my door asking for those scholarships.
MW: What is Art Attack’s role in the community?
SE: First and foremost, without Art Attack, we would not have a creative outlet for a lot of kids to come and be creative. We do have excellent art in the schools in Sycamore, but not necessarily in some of the outlying areas of DeKalb County. But still, there are some children where once a week is just not enough, so that would be a sorely missed thing. …Most importantly, the community would not have a place to come to enjoy art. There is no other place in Sycamore, and there’s no other place in DeKalb County that has classes year-around, seven days a week.
MW: Was there another facility that you modeled Art Attack after?
SE: I just started it all from scratch. I was disappointed with what I could get in regards to taking art classes. I could get a smattering here and there, but they were usually quite expensive. That’s where I came from. I want people to be able to take these classes, and I want them to be inexpensive. We have kept our classes well below the median class price. ...I have been told over and over again that I need to raise my prices but I say over and over again that I don’t want to do that. I want people to be able to afford it. …It would be a huge problem if the Art Attack was gone, and I have fought over the last several years to make sure that doesn’t happen.
MW: How often do you have events here?
SE: We typically do something every time the city has something. Every time there is a block party, we open our doors. We open a lot of times on Sunday during the farmer’s market just to support what Sycamore is doing. I feel that is very important. It helps me and it helps them to create excitement. We also have an art show – a full, fine arts show – at least every two months. Over the holiday season, we will have one a month. …That serves two purposes. It serves the artists and it also serves the community when they can buy original handmade art as opposed to the warehouse art that they can buy anywhere.
MW: Do you have a role in educating the non-artist community about appreciating artwork?
SE: Absolutely. Especially nowadays, since we have raised a full two generations of people without any art appreciation in the schools. They don’t appreciate art, it is just something that goes on the wall to match the sofa. Once the sofa is gone, so is the art. As an artist, that is like stabbing myself in the heart. …It is about telling people how much work goes into it, and how important it is to buy original art.
MW: Do you teach art appreciation here?
SE: We have done that quite a few times. We have talked to several park districts and we have talked at Barnes and Noble. We also go to Oak Crest and other elder care facilities. They aren’t necessarily interested in creating art, but they are interested in learning about it.