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Peoria's Tracey Frugoli debuts a 'radical shift' in her painting at McLean County Arts Center's Holiday Treasures

A painter in a blue t-shirt and weathered safari hat stands in a sun-soaked forest painting at her easel.
Kelli Klymenko
Courtesy Tracey Frugoli
Peoria artist Tracey Frugoli travels the country practicing plein air (or fresh air) painting. During the pandemic, she spent time in her studio developing a new, abstract technique to help her wrestle with anxiety about climate change. Pieces from the new series are on display at McLean County Arts Center's Holiday Treasures.

Peoria-based artist Tracey Frugoli is one of more than 60 artists displaying work at this year’s Holiday Treasures. The popular art show at the McLean County Arts Center opened last week and runs through the end of the year.

Frugoli grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to art school at Illinois State University; the choice to stay in central Illinois, she said, was an easy one.

“It’s so congested and rat race-y,” Frugoli said of her hometown.

While many artists are attracted to large cities, she feels pulled to a simpler (more affordable) way of life.

“Down here, it’s just an easy way to live,” she said. “I can have enough space, and quiet, and time to develop what needs to happen from an artist’s point of view.”

For decades, Frugoli focused almost exclusively on representational works, honing her technique by painting landscapes, still life, street scenes and portraits. She travels the country in search of varied landscapes, practicing plein air (or fresh air) painting by working outdoors. A longstanding partnership with Central Illinois Ballet yielded Degas-like images of dancers in the studio and the wings of a theater. It also piqued an interest in photography, which she picked up more than a decade ago.

“About every 10 years, I start to reinvent how I’m going to express myself artistically,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where I’m at to do that. Being in Illinois, you can live more cheaply. You get more freedom from that.”

For Frugoli, freedom looks like making her living exclusively from art—though she admits it wouldn’t be possible without a partner.

“Let’s face it, being an artist, you’re freelancing,” she said. “It’s hard to keep yourself going financially.”

A radical shift

For the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frugoli painted hardly at all.

“I gardened,” she said. “And I was anxious.”

Frugoli struggled with the idea of painting a landscape as worries about the pandemic and climate change loomed.

“I thought, another pretty painting—what for?”

Frugoli leaned on her graduate-level training as an art therapist, a field she practiced for over a decade.

“It dawned on me, oh my goodness, you have a tool to deal with your anxiety,” she said. “So what I do now, with acrylic paint, is all sorts of experimental mark-making, colors and shapes.”

A painting of a female figure suspended by abstract shapes in blue, purple, green red and orange
Frugoli worked with dancers from Central Illinois Ballet to model poses inspired by her abstract paintings. She aimed to create beautiful, thought-provoking images by layering abstract and representational techniques. This piece is called "Butterfly."

Working on a wet canvas, she lets the paint ooze and drip, making abstract representations of the Earth’s tipping points like glacial melt and the disappearing Amazon Forest. Frugoli then tapped into her relationship with Central Illinois Ballet, painting dancers in motion and abstract poses which echo the washes of paint underneath.

“I let the paint do what it wants to do a lot,” she said. “It starts to suggest forces that are beyond my control.”

Holiday Treasures is not just an opportunity to show work but also sell it at a time of year when pocketbooks tend to be open. Frugoli recalls selling jewelry at the long-running event in the ‘90s, a testament to its staying power.

Frugoli created all new work in this vein for Holiday Treasures knowing fans of her work, more familiar with her plein air landscapes will likely be surprised.

“We always appreciate a chance to exhibit our work,” she said. “We sit in the studio and we work, and we work, and we work. For the most part, we do it because we can’t help ourselves. There’s this undeniable urge and obsession to make art.”

Frugoli is moved by the process of not just making the art, but also sharing it and seeing her pieces resonate with others.

“It tells me that I value what you do so much that, one, I’m going to give away my hard-earned dollars for it. Two, I’m going to hang it in my home and look at it every single day. There’s something really magic about that.”

Holiday Treasures runs through New Year's Eve at the McLean County Arts Center, 601 N. East St. A companion solo show by Galesburg painter Basia Krol is in the Center’s Armstrong Gallery. There is no fee to view the galleries. Details at mcac.wildapricot.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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