Melissa Merli: Exhibit brings former shop owner back to a familiar spot

Melissa Merli: Exhibit brings former shop owner back to a familiar spot

Three years ago, Steve Kysar was given a 30-day notice to vacate his Old Main Book Shoppe at 116 N. Walnut St., C.

He had rented the prime downtown space for 25 years, selling books, prints, phonograph records, memorabilia and other ephemera.

His was one of the last stores of its kind, with character and a couple of cats.

But the University of Illinois School of Art + Design wanted to rent the storefront to use as a project space. One of its two owners happened to be the husband of an Art + Design professor.

It didn't go over well.

Conflict-of-interest charges were raised, and there was an outpouring of support for Kysar, who was 63 at the time. Up until then, he had planned to remain at Old Main until he retired.

Well, he couldn't, but he was back in the space — essentially for the first time since leaving — on the evening of Dec. 6 with his wife, Joy Wiele.

They were at the opening reception of a student-planned exhibition on the history of the storefront, which is just north of Cream & Flutter and the Esquire Lounge.

The couple called the show well-planned and well-executed.

"It made me feel a lot better about the whole thing," said Wiele, who worked at her husband's shop during the last decade of its existence.

Still, Kysar this past week said being given a 30-day notice was a "little abrupt.

"There's nothing you can do, no matter how many things like this where I'm given a pat on the back and given a little mini-memorial display," he said. "That's all really great. But it's a totally separate issue. Although it takes the edge off, it's still an ongoing issue."

And the issue, he said, is that real estate in the area of the storefront now called Figure One has high value, so much so that it excludes small retail businesses.

However, he acknowledged it's probably a good idea he got out of the store business when he did: After reluctantly closing Old Main, he sold off most of his books and phonograph records.

"I've had serious health issues in the last year, back problems that if they would have happened when I was in the store would have been trouble," he said.

Back to "Upside Down, Left to Right: 116 N. Walnut," the student-designed exhibition at Figure One. The lively opening reception on a frigid Friday evening attracted 220 people, including Champaign Mayor Don Gerard, prairie environmental activist David Monk and the 16 students who organized and installed the show.

It features a few books, prints and other pieces on loan from Kysar that he had kept at Old Main, plus a sculpture by Wiele that enjoys a prominent place; it had been displayed at the book shop, too.

It was a no-brainer to put the papier-mache, gold-painted version of Honest Abe up front, said the students who conceived of, organized and installed the exhibition.

They were enrolled in "Art Museum Exhibition Practice," a new course that was taught this fall by Krannert Art Museum Director Kathleen Harleman and Professor Alan Mette, associate head of the School of Art + Design.

The exhibition explores the past, present and future of the space now occupied by Figure One.

Among the displays is a small portrait of Kysar — a remarkable likeness — painted by UI senior painting major William Blake (his real name) — surrounded by Kysar's memorabilia.

In addition to the artifacts are other new artworks by UI faculty and students, among them townie Langston Allston. He displays three paintings, in hip-hop style, of Walnut Street denizens.

Some of the student art might not seem directly related to 116 N. Walnut St., but they address related concepts such as history, fictions, truths, memories and nostalgia, the students said.

I dropped by the last class session Tuesday at Figure One to chat with the students. They told me they had been unaware, before they began planning the show, of the earlier controversy over the space.

Graduate student Xuxa Rodriguez said they soon came across evidence, including a quote from a community member who promised never to walk down Walnut Street again.

"It was appropriate for us to talk about that as a class," said Eva Chertow, a graduate student from Massachusetts. "We studied interesting perspectives on it and learned more about it by doing this."

The students didn't shy away from including the issue in the exhibition.

"We were nervous about whether we were going to offend anyone," Chertow said.

Said Mette: "I think there's been a healing that's taken place because of this show."

If you go

What: "Upside Down, Left to Right: 116 N. Walnut," a University of Illinois student-organized show about the history of the space

When: Through Jan. 24, with a closing reception from 5 to 9 p.m. that day featuring live music, a poetry reading and print-making demonstrations

Where: Figure One, 116 N. Walnut St., C

Hours: 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays; 1 to 9 p.m. Saturdays

Admission: Free


A holiday hang

I arrived a little late to "A Wolf in a Manger," the holiday cabaret on Monday night organized by Kirstie Simson at Cafeteria & Co., a new space in downtown Urbana that houses Flying Machine Coffee and Pizza M.

Simson is a UI dance faculty member and a pioneer in the area of contact-improv dance. I knew I was in for something interesting when I saw Brendan Behan, who is tall for a dancer, wearing a red, strongly architectural costume designed by Simson, while doing a dance titled "Lock & Pop."

The costume has a long, red train that was operated by UI dance faculty member Philip Johnston and a young woman I didn't recognize.

The holiday cabaret, which was free, featured readings, storytelling and Claire Happel reciting five haiku — and after each, evoking on the harp how each would sound.

There also was an improv dance by Simson, who is always pleasing to watch, and Behan, with live tunes by Compost Q, an improv music group.

And a special treat: Ricardo Herrera, a bass baritone, sang "White Christmas" in English and Spanish. Afterward, three friends asked me "Who is that?"

I told them he's a UI faculty member in voice and an opera singer with a performance career — and that he was the celebrant, or priest, in the UI School of Music's production a few years back of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."

The heartwarming event also featured a group carol sing.

Pecha Kucha

I planned, on the evening of the Figure One opening, to return to downtown Champaign for Pecha Kucha, an event in which eight creative types gave timed presentations on their passions.

It was cold, and I couldn't tear myself away from my TV: TCM was broadcasting Josef van Sternberg's "Blonde Venus," starring Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant — and fabulous costumes. It was followed by Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra," starring Claudette Colbert and more fab costumes.

The costumes in both '30s movies were designed by Travis Banton, the star costume designer at Paramount during its heyday.

Anyway ... the Pecha Kucha presentations will be posted online, eventually. Presenter Nina Paley, a free culture activist, has posted hers at

Hatch artist

The I.D.E.A. Store in Champaign will bring artist/environmental educator Nancy Judd of Santa Fe here in March as the visiting Hatch artist-in-residence.

Judd creates recycled fashion designs from trash; I actually saw her at an event during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington. She was modeling a dress she had made out of campaign material.

Her work is included in the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection and has been commissioned by Delta Air Lines, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Target and other major corporations. She's been on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and has received international media coverage.

The 2014 festival, in its second year, will expand to two weeks, rather than one, with events Feb. 28-March 15 at various locations in C-U. They include a juried art exhibition, a one-day art fair and a "trashion" show with Judd as consultant.

See for more information.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (1):Art