Part I

Think fast. If you were to move out of the Valley, name five things you would do for sure every time you came back home to visit?

Every time I go to my hometown (Peoria, Illinois), I have to have pizza bread from Avanti’s, orange chicken from Hy-Vee, and popcorn from Lou’s. I also have to cruise slowly along Grandview Drive, sit along the Peoria Riverfront, and listen to The Greg and Dan Show on 1470 WMBD radio.

I recently spent a few weeks in Peoria. One day, Greg and Dan were interviewing a Dutch artist as he geared up for a “LIVE” mural he would be painting that weekend. Definitely interesting. Then I heard his name. Ard Doko. ‘Cool!’ I thought. ‘So close to Ardis.’ I knew I wanted to meet him, but little did I know at the time that the similarity in his first name and my last was only one thing we had in common.

While speaking to Ard, Greg and Dan announced to their listeners that the live event would take place at the Gabbert Art Park in Downtown Peoria, owned by Chuck Gabbert of C.T. Gabbert Remodeling and Construction. That was a name I hadn’t heard in years, but it still brought a smile to my face. Chuck grew up in our neighborhood.

I contacted my brother, Jim, to ask if he could put me in contact with Chuck, which he did, and before I knew it, I received a call from Ard about setting up an interview. We arranged to meet at the house where he was staying while in Peoria, a house I soon learned belongs to Doug and Eileen Leunig, talented artists who specialize in a photography technique known as “painting with light” and who are leading the way to transform Peoria into a hub for artists of all mediums and to create a Mural Festival set to debut in 2018.

“I met Ard at Hiram Toraason’s glass studio seven years ago,” said Doug. “I had stopped by to see Hiram, and Ard was there with his aunt. I found out that Ard was an artist visiting from Amsterdam. I suggested he call on James and Carrie Pearce at The Atelier in the Peoria Warehouse District and show them his portfolio. The Pearces sponsored Ard painting a mural for the First Friday artist studio tours, which resulted in the Ard Doko Man vs. Wall event. That was Ard’s introduction to the art scene in Peoria.”

Ard and I stepped out onto the back deck at the Leunig home, surrounded by the greenest of green trees and treated to a bird-chirping symphony. I had already visited Ard’s website (arddoko.nl), so I began by asking him to verify the basics.

Born in December of 1991 in Callantsoog, Netherlands, Ard now lives in Hoorn, which lies in the Dutch province of North Holland, 20 miles northeast of Amsterdam. Ard struggled in school, bored with traditional education and feeling like he didn’t fit in in Callantsoog, a town with a population just under 2,000.

“I was always drawing on walls,” Ard told me. “I got in a lot of trouble. I dropped out of high school my senior year.” While Ard’s dad didn’t agree with his son’s decision, his mom understood.

“She is a teacher, and she understood the educational system is not for everyone,” he told me. Although Ard was “drawing on walls,” at the time, he did not see himself as a talented artist. “I was just frustrated,” he said, and graffiti became his coping mechanism.

Soon thereafter, the then-18-year-old became focused on getting his work displayed. His work consisted of paintings and murals created using spray paint, markers, and brushes.

“One gallery owner laughed in my face,” Ard told me. “ ‘Yeah, you’re an artist,’ he told me,” Ard mimicking the smirk the man wore.

But then the owner of a high-end gallery in Amsterdam invited Ard to display his work for one month, an exhibit that resulted in the sale of some of his paintings and that Ard credits as his European debut in the world of art.

So how did he end up in Peoria?

He had a formal agreement with a gallery in Amsterdam exhibiting his work that stipulated he could not have other displays within a 100-mile radius.

“That left me clueless,” Ard said, “because the Netherlands isn’t that big.” He decided it was time to make his way to the States.

“I planned to go to New York,” he said. Ard has relatives in Peoria, so he went there first, planning to stay a month before making his way to the Big Apple. While in Peoria, he searched the web for local artists. He met Doug, who introduced him to First Fridays, started by the Central Illinois Artists Organization (CIAO) in February of 2011. (According to its website (ciaopeoria.com), First Fridays Studio Tours “brings the artwork of local talent into the spotlight of the public's view.” The first Friday of each month, participants tour local studios and galleries to “meet artists, musicians, neighbors, and collectors.”)

There, as Doug explained earlier, Ard met the Pearces, and they asked Ard if he would be interested in painting the mural at The Mill, a four-story building in Downtown Peoria built in 1891 that now houses a number of local artists. In an interview at the time, Ard said he didn’t realize just how big a 60’ x 30’ mural would be because he was accustomed to the metric system.

“I painted the mural and then had a ‘live’ finish, and the Peoria Journal Star picked it up,” Ard told me. The story went viral, and Ard showed it to gallery owners and others in the Netherlands. Ard left Peoria and went to New York, as planned, but he suddenly didn’t care about trying to make a name for himself there. The story in the Journal Star had created a spark for Ard that was about to ignite.

“A lot of doors opened for me, internationally,” he said. “It propelled my career.”

It is a career that has taken him around the world, back to Peoria three more times, on a sudden, unexpected detour, and back on track as an internationally recognized artist able to boldly address social issues through his work.

(Don’t miss Part II in next week’s Valley Town Crier.)