Bite-Sized Art: An Audio Postcard From Tuscola
If you were to draw lines pointing in from Champaign, Springfield, Indianapolis and Effigham, they'd meet in Tuscola. The town's population of less than 5,000 may well double on weekends when shoppers from all over central Illinois flock to its outlet mall.
Amanda Vinicky prefers to do her shopping local, and stuck to the heart of downtown Tuscola, where an old bank has been converted into a gallery. She sent us an audio postcard from a little corner of The Vault Arts Collective.
Pottery, sculpture, paintings, stained glass: Proof of central Illinois artists' talents pepper the walls, the tables and even the stairs of The Vault. It's the best of Etsy, sprung to life. A museum, and gift shop, rolled into one. Should you be able to resist buying anything, you may miss my favorite part: Just off to the side of a cash register, what looks like a glossy, bright orange cigarette vending machine.
That's just what it is, explains Brandi Stivers, a collage artist who is part of the co-op, and who was helping to run the store when I visited.
"It is an actual old cigarette vending machine that was used on the set of Cheers," Stivers tells me. "And somebody bought it, and they redid it: The Goss Gallery. Tronnie Goss, he redid it and made it into the Bite-Sized Art Machine. And you can find different artists, Vault Artists, and they put miniature, original pieces of art in these custom boxes that are all signed. And for $5 you can collect them and try different artists every time they come in."
When I previously would have put coins in and gotten out a pack of cigarettes, instead I get a package of art.
"Original art," Stivers adds. "And you'll be supporting an artist. And you get a little sample of what they do. And you can go to their space here and the vault and see the actual large pieces, and prints and things that they sell."
Stivers hands me a token and explains I can use it to pick what I want.
"He does different little jewelry pieces; Heather does really cool paintings, I don't know if you saw some over there," she says.
I tell her I like jewelry, I like painting, and I liked her stuff.
She points to another artist's work and says, "And then Karl, he's a speed-painted, he does really cool stuff as well. Tronnie Goss is good -- his might be empty; oh yes, it is."
"Brian Lynch is awesome," she says. "Brian and Laura are from Vintage Karma around the corner -- they have really cool stuff too. There's Kim, she's right here. She has really cool paintings up stairs, we share a wall. Marcia Dalton does texturized canvases, so her bite-sized art is like this one, they're real texturized and cool."
I pull the level of the machine, and after some minor rumblings, a box lands in a metal tray.
I can't help but laugh with mild anticipation as I carefully break open the box to get a glance at my new surprise treasure.
"I don't want to break the box, cause it's a nice box," I tell Stivers. "Somebody took the care ... this is a nice box too."
"And they usually put a card in," Stivers says.
"Here's your business card. And wood, and it's signed," I say. "Here it is, bite-sized art."
Wrapped up in a small black box vaguely resembling a pack of cigarettes (sub in "The Vault" for where "Camel" or "Malboro" would typically go) is a wooden block, featuring an autographed, Brandi-Stivers original collage, with the face of an fancy, exotic woman in the foreground.
Brandi says kids love the refurbished vending machine. I don't doubt it; my $5 prize easily beats the silly, made-in-China stuffed animals and plastic toys I used to try to fish out playing the crane-game.
I've out grown those; still, compared with the one-of-a-kind glitter helmet, panoramic landscape photograph, and bright, flowery oil painting that I'd coveted from the gallery, bite-sized art is more in line with my budget.
Not to mention, the thrill of surprise. Because when it comes down to it, isn't art all about discovery?
P.S.: Don't leave Tuscola without putting a literal cherry on top, with a three-scoop banana split featuring homemade ice cream from Flesor's Candy Kitchen, just down Main Street. I may or may not have bought some chocolate to bring home too, and it may or may not have quickly disappeared.