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"Making Our History" Lincoln Art Exhibit in Springfield

On August 11, 2022, the Center for Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) unveiled Making Our History: Artists Render Lincoln’s Legacies, an innovative physical and digital art exhibit funded by the University of Illinois Presidential Initiative: Expanding the Impact of the Arts and Humanities.

The exhibit showcases 20 Illinois artists, whose original work is displayed at three galleries in Springfield: the UIS Visual Arts Gallery, the Springfield Art Association M.G. Nelson Family Gallery (SAA), and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (ALPL). The artists developed their ideas during a yearlong virtual residency project co-directed by Graham A. Peck, Wepner Distinguished Professor of Lincoln Studies at UIS, and Brytton Bjorngaard, Director of Visual Arts and Associate Professor of Graphic Design.

“Learning about various disciplines, contextualizing history, and thinking contemporarily are key to artmaking,” Bjorngaard says. “The grant helped us to do that collaboratively through the Departments of History and Visual Arts, and the artists knew they had money coming in to support their work while building a community via the residency. That was something I knew I wanted to be involved in.”

The unique concept and format challenged the artists to develop ideas about Lincoln’s contemporary legacies. Peck developed online resources directing artists both to the work of scholars and to current public portrayals of Lincoln.

The artwork reflects a wide variety of forms, methods, concepts, and perspectives, including paintings, sculptures, prints, photography, virtual reality, conceptual, and video art. The artists address the many “Lincolns” that inhabit our culture: the frontier Lincoln, the logician, the family man, the politician, the military chieftain, the emancipator, the icon, the American God, the pop culture figure and cultural artifact, the Land of Lincoln, and Lincoln’s still resounding political legacy.

Visitors to the exhibit have wrestled with starkly different renderings of Lincoln’s legacies. Many have left with a deeper appreciation for Lincoln. Jerry Martin, visiting from Brecksville, Ohio, says that some works in the exhibit “brought me to the verge of tears over Lincoln's fate and the fate of the nation.”

Almost all visitors leave with a newfound visual and conceptual vocabulary with which to think about his legacy. Jerry’s wife, Helen Martin, was “struck by Lincoln in an astronaut suit, showing his relevance to today's America.” SpaceAbe, as Chicago artist Nathan Peck calls his piece, dramatically transports the 1860s into the 1960s, and was featured in this short TV segment profiling the opening of the exhibit.

Twenty short videos created by The Storyteller Studios in Springfield, Ill., accompany the artworks. According to producer Kevin Christensen, the studio used “a very pure documentary approach, capturing natural sound and shots of the artists working on their projects in order to bring them and their works into focus.” Mostly they shot in the artists’ studios, although one video was shot on site at New Salem, two in a museum in Urbana-Champaign, and another in the glass-enclosed Lincoln Reception Room of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Artists participating in the exhibit include William Blake, Julie Cowan, Keenan Dailey, David Hinds, Danny Houk, Larsen Husby, Jordan Fein, Lori Fuller, Industry of the Ordinary (Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson), Lindsay Johnson, Kelly Kristin Jones, Judith Joseph, Judith Mayer, Alexander Martin, Mark Nelson, Nathan Peck, Don Pollack, Krista Shelton, Corey Smith and Billie Theide.

The exhibit closes September 15 at the UIS Visual Arts Gallery, September 16 at the ALPL, and September 17 at the SAA.

For more information, visit the Visual Arts Gallery. You may also contact Graham A. Peck at 217-206-8683 or Bella Szabo at 217-206-6506.