Part II

After the Peoria Journal Star’s coverage of Ard Doko’s Man vs. Wall live mural-painting event in 2011 in my hometown of Peoria (Illinois) went viral, Ard told me, doors opened for him internationally.

In fact, after that event in 2011, Ard had exhibits in Amsterdam, Germany, California, Nevada, Tijuana, and Austria. He returned to Peoria, too. Life was good. Ard had definitely made a name for himself in the international world of art. Little did he know a detour lay ahead.

“In 2015, I got a call about being in a show in a big Dutch museum,” Ard told me. He saw the list of artists and was taken aback to see the names of some “really famous” visual composers.

“I have a blue-collar mentality,” Ard said, “so I took one of my big paintings, and I took a train to the museum.” The show was based on the songs of two Dutch pop stars, and the idea was to have a painting that would represent each song. Ard’s painting was selected.

“For the opening, I took a train again,” Ard said. “Some of the other artists arrived in high-end cars with their PR teams. The show went very well and got a lot of media attention. But I’m a kid from a little Dutch village of 2,000 people, and I don’t like a lot of attention. I decided to call it quits.” It was like a free fall from a summit.

Ard enrolled in Leen En Bertus Barbier (Schorem Haarsnijder En Barbier) in Rotterdam, described on its website as “a small, independent barber academy, where the master barbers of Schorem would share the knowledge that they gained over the past 25 years, located at the old shop.” The “old shop” refers to Schorem, a hugely popular “old-school, men-only barbershop” in Rotterdam.

“I had never gotten to hang where people had a normal job,” Ard said. “It was pretty fun.” Ard began living this rather obscure, “normal” life, far removed from the world of art exhibits and live mural-painting events.

Then, rather suddenly, Ard began experiencing chest pains, once so severe that he passed out. “It was not a heart attack,” Ard explained, “but I thought ‘I’m gonna die here…and I’m not done yet.’” For Ard, this was the quintessential wake-up call.

“I missed it (painting) a lot,” he told me. “Art, to me, was always about self-expression. I noticed I had started to lose my mind because I wasn’t creating anything.”

As if in response to Ard’s wake-up call, he was invited to be part of a group art show. Although he was scheduled for surgery a couple of days before the opening, he accepted the offer.

“When I saw the reaction to my work,” Ard said, “it felt good.” The detour over, Ard returned to the path that inspires and strengthens him, the path that allows him to express his thoughts, ideas, and messages.

That path took him back to Peoria this summer, painting two murals at Gabbert Art Park at live events June 24 and July 1.

Chuck Gabbert of C.T. Gabbert Remodeling & Construction owns Gabbert Art Park, which used to be a gas station next door to Chuck’s business.

“We bought it and tore it down,” Chuck told me. “Because of where we are located, we are the gateway to the Warehouse District. There was this ugly wall, and three-to-four years before we were able to buy the property, I had this idea that a mural on that wall would be really cool.”

Once Chuck purchased the property, others suggested he create a billboard-style wall with one large mural; however, that didn’t match Chuck’s vision. He wanted four or five different murals to transform ugly to “really cool.” He contacted a couple of local schools to see if they would be interested in having students create the murals, but there was no interest. Chuck turned to local artist/photographer Doug Leunig and his wife, Eileen, also a photographer, who were instrumental in putting Chuck in contact with local artists interested in displaying their work at Gabbert Art Park. Most of the artwork remains on exhibit at the open-air art park for three months, though it can be on display for up to six months.

Currently, one of Doug and Eileen’s masterpieces, Banner Marsh, is on exhibit at the park. Depending on the time of day, different elements within Banner Marsh appear to have a light shining upon them. (Doug and Eileen use a technique called “painting with light,” which results in light paintings (photographs) comprised of hundreds of exposures. You can see Banner Marsh and more of Doug and Eileen’s gems at purposedrivenart.org.)

Chuck’s son, Joe, is the artist behind the finishing touches at Gabbert Art Park, from the old tires reincarnated as colorful hanging planters to the Little Free Library. He is also the artist responsible for the classic but worn MG, which he brings to life by painting it to match the season or the holiday or whatever moves him and by watering the colorful bouquets of flowers growing in its trunk.

One day, Chuck said, he heard a Dutch artist was in town painting a mural, so he went to see him in action. That artist was, of course, Ard Doko.

“About three or four months later, Doug said Ard was going to come back to Peoria,” Chuck told me, “so I decided to talk to him about painting murals here.” The paintings at the park are non-political and not offensive, Chuck said. Ard agreed, and as the idea developed, they decided to have a “live” event, allowing the public to watch while Ard turned a vinyl billboard-sized canvas into an incredible piece of public art.

(Next week in Part III, Ard explains the meaning behind one of the murals he painted this summer at Gabbert Art Park, My Last Serenade, and discusses who inspires him and who he hopes to inspire.)