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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Illinois Art Station is ramping up for summer — with a new local leader at the helm

Four young people are painting a brightly colored mural with polka dots and birds surrounding a child with a green, polka-dotted shirt. Three of the painters have their backs to the camera. The word "artist" is on the back of their black t-shirts.
Illinois Art Station
Participants of the 2019 Youth Mural Project creating the public art on Market Street in Bloomington. Illinois Art Station and several community partners kick off a new mural project on June 28.

Youth art camps are already filling up at Illinois Art Station. As the center rounds the bend on one full year since moving into their new home on Vernon Avenue, new leadership from a familiar face in the Twin City arts scene is returning the nonprofit to its community roots and reigniting the Youth Mural Project for the first time since 2019.

Kicking off June 28, the Youth Mural Project brings together area youth, police officers and community leaders for two weeks of artmaking, culminating in a July 9 public unveiling and performance in front of the new mural.

Previous Youth Mural Projects resulted in murals on Constitution Trail near Washington Street, and at the intersection of West Market Street and Morris Avenue in Bloomington. The project’s multiple organizational partners include Artolution, BCAI Cultural Arts & Humanities, District 87, Western Avenue Community Center, the City of Bloomington and the Bloomington Police Department.

Hannah Johnson
Hannah Johnson is the Illinois Art Station's new executive director.

“We are really looking to emphasize how any member of our local community and elsewhere creates safe spaces,” said IAS executive director Hannah Johnson, who spoke to WGLT on her second day on the job.

“What does it mean to be safe, to feel safe, to make others feel safe? With our young artists and with our officer artists we can do some relationship building," Johnson said. "We can create something really beautiful and impactful that will continue to inspire dialog.”

Johnson succeeds Laura Jaster — who held the position for less than two years — as the leader of the fledgling nonprofit initially associated with Illinois State University. Johnson, a Bloomington native, previously worked as the education program coordinator at the McLean County Museum of History.

Johnson sees the switch from history to visual art as a natural extension of her upbringing. As the child of two theatre artists immersed in Bloomington-Normal’s arts scene, the arts are a part of Johnson’s DNA. She said that visiting friends as a child helped her realize that not everyone’s walls were covered with locally made art.

“You kind of start piecing together that our situation might be unique,” she said.

Johnson attended District 87 schools, graduated from Bloomington High School and has two history degrees: one from Illinois Wesleyan and one from Illinois State. Prior to her work at the McLean County Museum of History, she did internships with the David Davis Mansion and the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives.

“What’s so great about the McLean County Museum of History is that it’s all local," said Johnson. "You’re building community, you’re building identity as you’re moving through it. That’s what really captured my interest (at Illinois Art Station) and built on my previous experience.”

While executive leadership is a new challenge for Johnson, she said the many hats she wore at the museum fully prepared her for IAS. Johnson joins program coordinator Joey Hatch, the only other full-time staff member.

“At any moment I can be pulled into a program, and all of a sudden, I’m artmaking with kiddos," Johnson said. "And then the next minute I could be meeting with a donor or submitting a grant. That was very much the relationship that I had with work at the history museum.”

The timing of Illinois Art Station's expansion during the pandemic could be seen as an advantage. In a prior interview, Jaster told WGLT that they’d planned to scale up slowly after moving into the new building in 2021, and therefore weren’t hampered by capacity limits or previous precedent at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson agreed and likewise said "the numbers are there." Her main goals are continuing to get the word out about IAS and leveraging her deep community ties.

“Illinois Art Station has always had local support. In terms of folks in the leadership role, however, I’m the first one to be a Bloomingtonian," Johnson said. "That’s not criticism of anyone who’s come before. I think it’s a testament to the desirability and enthusiasm around this organization that people were literally willing to move and uproot their lives to come and serve. … It’s taken me 30+ years to put together this big picture, so I’m really hopeful that we can see what piece of the puzzle Illinois Art Station is along with our other local arts partners.”

A highlight of IAS’s colorful, airy new building along Constitution Trail is the gallery near the front doors, which features a rotating exhibition of art installations by and for kids. Johnson feels that legitimizing youth’s artistic output is an essential part of cultivating a healthy community. Plus, working with kids feels good.

“There is always potential in any kiddo,” said Johnson. “Even on the worst day — even that kid who is the grumpy Gus in the room — you know you can turn it around.”

Spots remain for Art in Plain Sight on June 6 in partnership with Miller Park Zoo and for smARTs Camp July 25-29 about neurodiverse artists for 11-14 year olds. The Youth Mural Project’s community unveiling and performance takes place July 9. More at illinoisartstation.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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