Jonathon Romain knows about some of the highest highs and lowest lows that life - or your own bad choices - can toss in your path. He went from a Chicago ghetto to Bradley University and from Bradley to a prison cell - only to emerge seven years later as a promising Chicago-based artist who was commissioned to paint a portrait of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone. Now the 43-year-old artist has returned to Peoria to open a gallery. It will be his attempt to make a small contribution to making the city better by reaching out to young people who are just as confused and misdirected as he once was.
Jonathon Romain knows about some of the highest highs and lowest lows that life - or your own bad choices - can toss in your path.
He went from a Chicago ghetto to Bradley University and from Bradley to a prison cell - only to emerge seven years later as a promising Chicago-based artist who was commissioned to paint a portrait of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone. Romain even has a photograph of himself smiling with the former president and holding the portrait.
Now the 43-year-old artist has returned to Peoria, where he has transformed a rundown building into a shining new 8,000-square-foot art gallery, which will hold a special wine and cheese and music opening from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Nov. 7.
On display will be a quarter century's worth of Romain's paintings and drawings - colorful abstract pieces; portraits of Barack Obama and Malcolm X as well as the dispossessed and down-and-out; poetic and well-composed nudes; pieces commissioned for friends who happen also to be leaders in their field, whether business or media.
It's artwork that has attracted the attention of Black Entertainment Television, the Food Network's cooking whiz Emeril Lagasse, Oprah Winfrey and national news shows.
But the new Peoria gallery will be about more than artwork, Romain said. It will be his attempt to make a small contribution to making the city better by reaching out to young people who are just as confused and misdirected as he once was. He visualizes his gallery becoming a center for classes and projects and visits by school kids - all of which will have something to do with urging young people, especially young people inclined to give up on themselves, to pursue education and self-improvement.
"I think I have a unique way to penetrate that element of society because I made it out of that element of society, and I've been through everything that they're going through," Romain said recently at his gallery. "I've always been a leader. Consequently, it's a lot easier for me to capture the attention and the imagination of some of these young folks than other people do."
Romain grew up on the west side of Chicago, and his family - including his stepfather, sister and mother - later lived on Peoria's south side for about three years during Romain's middle school years. The family then returned to Chicago, where Romain attended Proviso East High School and turned to petty crime and gangs.
He did manage to graduate, however, in 1984. He enrolled in Triton Junior College, earning a high enough grade point average to qualify him to transfer to Bradley University - a school that had attracted him ever since riding his bicycle around the university campus years before. Although he majored in psychology, Romain continued to take art classes as an independent study.
Nevertheless, Romain said, he still had not really found himself and what he wanted to do. He also had not shaken off the self-destructive habits of his youth. Romain continued to sell drugs, earning himself time in prison - where, ironically, he actually began to discover a sense of direction.
Left to his own devices, Romain created a series of pencil drawings, which he has kept and which hang in the North Sheridan gallery right now. Titled "Motherland," "Malcolm X," "Mother and Son," "Harmony" and "Beauty and the Air," the drawings celebrate the cultural heritage of Africa and the unity and rhythm of nature. Malcolm X's journey of self-education and enlightenment provided an inspiration for Romain. So did the drawings themselves, convincing Romain that he did indeed have the talent to be a professional artist.
"Most of us start out drawing, but the vast majority of us stop," Romain said. "But I just never stopped. The thing is, when I compared my work as an adolescent to a professional artist, I always came up short. I did not realize that was something you grew into. I thought either you had it or you didn't.
"When I went to prison, I started drawing just for the fun of it. But because I had time to really focus in on it, I was able to tap into something in me that I didn't know that I had."
After Romain was released, in the 1990s, he stuck to his new calling. He made an attempt to open a gallery in Peoria - including one on North Sheridan, not far from his present gallery - and eventually ended up on North Perry. But soon he was back in Chicago, where his work began to attract notice. He won commissions from State Farm, the National Black Prosecutors Cook County Bar Association and other businesses and organizations. His work began to appear at the Museum of Science and Industry, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the National Black Fine Arts Show in New York.
Even as his art career bloomed, Romain never stopped trying to share his experiences with young people that he feared were going in the same direction that he did. He often found receptive ears.
"I can't tell you how many times I've spoken at a juvenile facility or the department of corrections ... and all of the faculty and administrators are always surprised at how attentive the people in the audience are," Romain said. "Because they aren't attentive to most of the people who come in there. But they listen to me, because I speak their language."
Eventually, Romain decided to return to Peoria partly because of the high cost of rent in Chicago. Where he lived meant little compared with the kind of art he was creating, he decided.
And the neighborhood around North Sheridan seemed just the right place to locate, he said, pointing out what impact a gallery full of portraits of African-American people might have on those both black and white who passed by daily.
"Just the presence of this gallery in this neighborhood will do something subconsciously to somebody," Romain said. "Some of these children walking up and down the street, as they peer into the window of this gallery, will see themselves represented in an obvious way."
Gary Panetta can be reached at (309) 686-3132 or email@example.com.