Arts scene on the upswing in downtown Tuscola
It's the first Saturday evening in October, and dusk has fallen in Tuscola.
The downtown looks dark and deserted, especially along Sale Street, the main east-west drag.
But around the corner, the building at 100 Main St. is lit up, with autumn decorations outside and in.
People of all ages, some wearing costumes, stream in and out. They fill the two-story building. They're in Monster Ball party mood, moving from room to room, chatting and checking out the arts and crafts on display and for sale.
Some stop at a large table on the first floor to have temporary tattoos applied. Others stand in a corner next to a giant Frankenstein to have their photographs taken.
A good number of parents take their children upstairs to a loft space, where they paint pumpkins and do other Halloween crafts.
Also on the second floor, speed-painter Karl Jendry of Monticello has set up an easel and paint-splattered drop cloths. He would quickly turn out portraits of Salvador Dali, Frankenstein and his Bride, Edgar Allen Poe and Bela Lugosi as Dracula, keeping with the Monster Ball theme.
There's also free food, loaded onto a large table, and Halloween candy in huge bowls scattered throughout the building, free for the taking.
Welcome to one of Tuscola's newest businesses, the Vault Arts Collective, which hosts a themed event the first Saturday of every month.
Admission is free, and the place is hopping.
Dressed as hippies, Holden and Shan Brown drove 30-some miles from their home in rural Urbana to Tuscola for the Monsters Ball.
They describe themselves as "big supporters" of John McDevitt, who opened the Vault Arts Collective on Aug. 31 after buying the old bank building, with 12,000 square feet of space, from the city of Tuscola.
"He's put a lot of work in this place," says Holden Brown, a maker of metal steampunk-like sculptures.
"It's so wonderful," Shan Brown says as she studies the items offered by Blue Heron Arts, one of 35 artists or crafts groups renting space at the Vault Arts Collective.
Michael Shirley, a history instructor at Eastern Illinois University who has lived in Tuscola since 2002, speaks in a similar vein about the Vault.
The 56-year-old from the Chicago suburbs said it gives Tuscola "an incredibly cool vibe" while respecting the small town's atmosphere and conviviality.
McDevitt, 53, had looked at 23 buildings in central Illinois before settling on the old bank building to provide studios and/or sales spaces to artists and makers. His Yellow Dog Studio is in a large first-floor space in the back.
The concept of the Vault Arts Collective originated in 2010 in Sullivan as the Factory Arts Collective. It was inside the Brown Shoe Factory. After its owner died, McDevitt, who grew up in and lives in Sullivan, searched for a new location.
Tuscola courted him, offering tax-increment financing to help him pay for and rehab the building. A woodworker who works mostly with reclaimed wood, McDevitt has done much of the work himself. In addition to display and sales spaces, he plans for the 1866 building to house an arts library and exhibition, meeting and workshop areas.
He is not the first artist to recognize the potential in Tuscola, a city of 4,500 about 25 miles south of Champaign.
In April 2012, partners Laura Davis and Ainslie Heilich opened Vintage Karma in the 1890s Oddfellows Lounge, 110 Sale St.
Vintage Karma houses Heilich's tattoo parlor, tucked away in a loft in back, as well as a shop that sells funky items made by 25-plus artisans.
One is Susan Harbourt Designs. A metalsmith, Harbourt lives in St. Joseph; her designs have filled Emmy and Golden Globe swag bags, according to Heilich, who is Harbourt's younger sister.
Their parents moved to Tuscola four years ago — that's one reason Heilich and Davis, both 33, relocated their Vintage Karma tattoo parlor and shop from Stroudsburg, Pa., to Tuscola.
"It's one of those things — people are always surprised," Davis said. "They're like, 'Why are you in Tuscola?' We were super-attracted to the downtown area because of the old buildings and Flesor's Candy Kitchen."
Greek immigrant Gus Flesor opened Flesor's, an old-fashioned soda-candy parlor, in 1901. It closed in the '70s and remained shuttered until 2004, when his two granddaughters reopened it.
Since then, national media including CBS News have done stories on Flesor's, at Main and Sale streets. Flesor's Candy Kitchen has become a destination; another big one in Tuscola is the Tanger Outlet Center just off Interstate 57, a mile east of downtown.
To help start up Vintage Karma, Heilich and Davis received tax-increment grants to buy and rehab the 16,000-square-foot building. They live on its second floor.
The two plan eventually to have performances on the second-floor stage, left by the Oddfellows. They already host events at Vintage Karma and collaborate with the Vault artists on theirs.
Vintage Karma hosts a monthly social group for lesbian, gay and transgender folks and their friends and relatives, and a Craft Night from 5 to 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month.
The next event at Vintage Karma will be the Prickly Pair trunk show from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. It's in memory of Cheryl Slifer, who died in June. Tea and other refreshments will be served.
As the Prickly Pair, Ms. Slifer and her sister, Janet Alred, "created funky lamps, whimsical robots and many laughs together over the years," according to the Vintage Karma Facebook page.
Heilich, Davis and McDevitt are happy with the traffic and business they've seen so far at their businesses. And they look forward to more action in downtown Tuscola.
McDevitt said it has the bones: "It's got the character. The brick sidewalks. The vintage-style lamp posts. The green spaces."
Already, another Tuscola-based business plans to renovate four downtown storefronts for a home furnishings store there, and eventually a wine bar-coffee shop, according to Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc.
Moody said the Vault was a good fit for Tuscola, and he views Vintage Karma as a catalyst for development and bringing a younger crowd downtown.
"We like to say we're ahead of the curve," Heilich said. "Hopefully, this is the start of great things."