Beverly Garcia ushered me into her studio in Grand Detour. Lots of space – she converted it from a three car garage – but full with art everywhere: flowers, still life, portraits. Mostly oils. She used to do pastels but storage became an issue.
Garcia didn't start out wanting to be an artist. When she was 50, she wanted to learn how to decorate a cedar chest for a wedding present. As time when on, she got in deeper and deeper.
"And then I took, oh, a gazillion classes and workshops," she said.
She continued to study and paint with other artists around the country, and in the Rock River Valley. Eventually, she began winning ribbons at shows, getting shown in galleries, and selling her works on a regular basis.
Garcia said her experience shows it's not just about some mystical talent bestowed on you.
"Art has more to do with desire to do the painting, good instruction, and miles of canvas," she said. "And you have lots of pieces that need to go to the burn pile but those are 'learning pieces.'"
Garcia is a member of the Rock River Valley Painters Guild; it's the group behind the Rock River Valley Studio Tour. There will be gallery shows during the tour in Byron, Mt. Morris, Dixon, and Sterling. But it's the chance to see and meet artists where they do their work that's the main attraction of the tour. Like Dan Letourneau's house and farm buildings on the edge of Dixon.
Letourneau started out at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but left painting for a while. A friend inspired him to get back in. That was 40 years ago.
Letourneau and the other artists get together regularly to do "plein air painting," from a French expression en plein air which means "in the open air." It's where an artist paints a scene on the spot in just couple of hours – not over weeks, months or years. There are plenty of examples on the walls.
"It's good to be painting with other artists, you know, instead of by yourself," he said. "And so you're always learning."
Letourneau also does studio work in florals. He says some of the artists went to an art school but most took individual classes or practiced with others.
"I think that art is something that can be learned," he said. "And the more you paint the better you are."
But it's not just painters' works that will be on display. Others will show their sculpture, photography, ceramics, and more during the weekend.
Chara Pottery Studio is on a farm outside of Grand Detour. A sign tells you what's for sale here: hay and pottery. As music played in the background, Potter Sally Jane Cooper explained that "Chara" is a Greek word that means "Divinely inspired joy of the soul."
On a sunny day, with the bees in the nearby hives buzzing and the Coopers' five cats and two dogs lounging about, the name seems to fit. But the rows of stoneware and other pieces on the shelves attest to how busy this place must be at times. Cooper said she started working in clay as a teen in 4-H, but did other things for college and career before going full-on with the studio. She said it's been good for her.
"I've learned a lot from pottery," she said. "A whole lot from doing pottery. I'm ADHD, and so pottery is very therapeutic for me. And it also teaches me patience because there's no way to rush it. Everyone time I've tried to rush it, it's a catastrophe," she laughed.
Cooper will demonstrate some of her techniques for the tour, as will other artists.
By contrast, the new studio Annie Hermes is moving into is a storefront in downtown Dixon. It's listed as Anois Studios on the tour map but she's changing it to the name of her business, Elevate Art Rental. It's just what it sounds like: She leases original works by her and other artists to businesses that might not be able to afford to buy them. But here too, the professional muralist and painter of abstracts and pop art pieces is going for a relaxed vibe.
"This is going to be my working space," she said. "People are welcome to come in and watch me paint if it's a painting day. And we'll also have paintings on the wall and murals."
After that, she said, it's up to them.
"You can't determine what people will think or feel at your art," she said. "You just have to hope they take time to get lost in the painting and that they can pull something out of it for themselves."
There are studios big and small on the tour, but one thing they all have in common: lots and lots of art, hung on the walls, stacked up on the floor. Jan Harvey has hers neatly arranged in terraced bins -- like a welcome center display but with paintings and prints in them instead of maps and brochures. It maximizes the space in the small studio in her home off Illinois Route 2 between Dixon and Sterling. She, too, pursued an interest in art, took lessons and classes, and now does it full time.
"If you have the desire to paint or draw," she said, "get with somebody that's just willing to take some time with you. Take a class from them. Get started. Because you'll never know where that's going to go."
Viewing the art, one thing seems clear: These are not amateurs but artists - serious as well as joyful about what they do. Their works are displayed in exhibitions and galleries as well as private homes. And as the tour suggests, they're all around us -- and maybe worth getting to know.