Part III

July 1 at eight in the morning, I drove to Gabbert Art Park in Downtown Peoria (IL) to witness Nederlander Ard Doko in action. The Saturday before, he had painted his first mural on a removable, vinyl billboard at the park. Today he would create My Last Serenade.

Doug and Eileen (Leunig) were already there, as were a few others. I spoke to Ard briefly, but he had already entered his artist’s zone. He stood atop the scaffolding, the tools of his trade, primarily cans of spray paint, spread along the wooden planks. Ard had sketched out his creation prior to the event. Now he would transform his vision into his latest masterpiece.

I took several pictures and then left for a couple of hours. Around 10 a.m., I returned with my sister-in-law, Mimi, who also wanted to see Ard creating street art, live, in Downtown Peoria. By the time we arrived, Ard had nearly completed the first of three figures in My Last Serenade using grey, black and red and the white of his vinyl canvas.

One of the things that amazed me most about Ard was that as he sprayed, spattered, or intricately defined aspects of his mural, he seemed oblivious to the crowd that had gathered at the park. But then, in an instant, someone would walk over to the canvas to greet him or to ask a question about the painting, and he so easily slipped out of his zone to respond in the friendliest manner and then slipped right back into it.

I left again but returned around five in the evening, this time with my mom. I wanted Ard, Doug, and Eileen to meet her, and I wanted her to see My Last Serenade. It turned out to be perfect timing as Ard had just completed Peoria’s newest mural. I couldn’t believe he could complete such a deep and dramatic piece of art in one day, but he did.

Later, I asked Ard for the story behind My Last Serenade.

“The piece is about reinventing yourself,” Ard told me. “In a way, that is how I see Peoria and myself. It’s just when you feel you reached a low point in everything, you give that one extra push to beat the (expletive) out of negativity. I hope Peoria reinvents itself in the art scene, gives more attention to the young generation instead of being stuck by certain restrictions laid upon by the older generation.”

Ard then explained the symbolism of My Last Serenade. “The grey face parts show the reality of history,” he said. “It’s detailed, it has its stories, and it is easy to describe. The wild motions and colors stand for progression. It’s wild and unsure, but sometimes you have to jump into the deep to achieve success.” Even the naked, artistically untrained eye can tell by the colors and the motions of his work that there is a bold message behind each piece Ard creates.

I wrote in Part I of this series that when I first heard Ard on 1470 WMBD in Peoria, the idea of a Dutch artist painting murals in Peoria immediately caught my attention. Then, when I heard his name, Ard, I knew I wanted to meet him because I thought it was cool that it was so close to Ardis. But, I wrote in Part I, “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.”

When we met prior to his live mural-painting event, Ard shared with me that his teen years proved to be a difficult time in his life, a time when he battled mental health issues.

“I was from a small town, I didn’t feel I fit in, and I felt depressed,” he told me. At one point, those feelings became so overwhelming that he attempted suicide.

“It’s not that you want to die. You just don’t want to live this life,” he said. “Teens try to live by standards. You need to have a house by 25…We generally don’t know reality. We’re trying to find our way on the rollercoaster of life, but we don’t know the rollercoaster any more. We don’t have a map, or it’s poorly drawn. We have to figure out life by ourselves. We only have one chance. Then we get bombarded with too much info, and there are no positive stories on the news.”

I shared with Ard that my brother, Tim, died in 2002 as a result of suicide. I shared with him the anguish, as well as the sudden, relentless realization that his full potential would never be reached.

“I’m happy I didn’t do it now,” Ard said. “Life IS great. It’s what we choose to view.” He said for a long time he didn’t share this part of his story because he didn’t want it to become his full story. Now, however, he realizes it is a part of his story he needs to share. In fact, it is a crucial part of why he thinks he inspires teens.

“I think I inspire the kids who feel left out or who feel stuck,” he told me. “For example, the Midwest is like the cute, shy girl at the school dance. She doesn’t know she’s pretty. She has a lot going on but doesn’t brag about it.” That’s also how he sees himself.

“I’m just a kid who happens to do work people like,” Ard said, “and I’m humbled by it. It’s good to believe in yourself, but the moment you believe all of the fairy tales about yourself, that’s not a good thing. I don’t want to build up an ego.”

A couple of years ago, Ard created Blue during one of his trips to Peoria. Three people are depicted, each of them with two faces representing the one we show to the world and the one showing how we feel on the inside when we are battling depression.

“There should be a safe space to talk about that,” Ard said. (You can see Ard creating Blue on YouTube: “Blue” by Ard Doko.)

When I asked Ard who inspires him, a smile spread across his face. “To be honest, none of the famous artists. I get inspired a lot by chefs, like the ones on Chef’s Table on Netflix. I find it fascinating. I’m a big food lover.” Ard has taken this inspiration to the next level, developing his own artistic skills in the kitchen.

Although famous artists do not inspire Ard, he is definitely inspired by some of Peoria’s artists.

“Peoria has a lot of great artists,” he told me. “Like Justin Fenwick. He makes customized shoes and sells them to big-named people. (Justin’s company is Donk’e Punch, which can be found on Facebook.) And photographers like Keith Cotton (keithcotton.com and Keith Cotton Photography on Facebook). He’s this great photographer who does shoots with people like the actress from Hunger Games. And, of course, Doug and Eileen (purposedrivenart.org).” Returning to his love for food, Ard added, “And some of the diners here make great food, even though it’s not LA or NY.”

As a result of the murals at Gabbert Art Park in Peoria and murals recently painted at other Peoria businesses, Doug and Eileen and others in Peoria are planning a Mural Festival in 2018.

“It’s the old saying, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’” Eileen told me. “Ard’s live painting attracted folks into the Warehouse District, and now people can grasp the idea of what we have been talking about.”

Eileen said key people in Peoria, like John Morris, CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, and John and Sharon Amdall, arts advocates and ArtsPartners of the Year in 2016, “are moving the city into the spotlight of being an arts destination, and the mural festival will add to their efforts. The first year, the festival will be organic. Live painting, music, food, and, hopefully, some performances. We’re doing our research to see what works in other cities, and we’re relying on the expertise of event planners in Peoria to help us learn the ropes. We’ll start small, but we’ve got our sights set on putting Peoria on the art map.”

Having a mural festival is about much more than public art.

“While murals do dress up blank walls,” Eileen told me, “their real value is in starting conversations in neighborhoods and communities. As with all art, murals are important because of the connections they create. Public art expands our world.”

I don’t believe much in coincidences, and this is a perfect example of why. Public art brought a talented artist who grew up in a small town in the Netherlands to start an untold number of conversations in my hometown.