Her Art: A quest to discover Illinois' women artists

Celebrating Women's History Month.

In 2005, Channy Lyons organized an exhibit of women artists who worked in Peoria before 1970. She managed to identify 50 artists but it was no easy task. Researching women artists was a tedious process, made more challenging because most women artists prior to 1940 remained largely anonymous. Tracking them down was thwarted by name changes after marriage, unsigned works or the use of pseudonyms.

Lyons was undaunted, her love of art, history and experience as a computer programmer gave her the skillset needed to complete her quest.

A native New Yorker, Lyons was born in 1943 and moved to Chicago with her family in the early 1950s. She studied political science at the University of Wisconsin and earned an MBA from the University of Illinois. She worked as a computer programmer at a major Chicago advertising firm before pursing her Masters of Art in English at Bradley University. She ultimately made her home in Peoria, where she researched and wrote about Peoria women who influenced the local quality of life.

While Lyons was not a fine artist like her mother and maternal grandmother, they greatly influenced her appreciation of art and love of storytelling. Her grandmother served as a role model and the source for Lyons’ first book entitled, "Verda: An Artist Sketches Europe, 1951." Lyons would go on to write several other books about her grandmother and the women artists of Illinois.

In light of the difficulty she experienced in finding information for the 2005 exhibit; Lyons set out to make it easier for future generations. Her goal was to uncover the identity of as many Illinois women artists and their works as possible. More important she wanted to make the information readily available to anyone. One year after that first exhibit, Lyons founded the Illinois Women Artist Project (IWA) and in 2008 led a statewide effort to build a database of women artists from Illinois.

The Illinois Women Artists Project continues to thrive as an online resource managed by Bradley University and is dedicated to recognizing the work and experiences of Illinois women artists.

Lyons’ preliminary focus was on early women artists and their works. “It is impossible to know exactly how many women living in Illinois between 1840 and 1940 dreamed of becoming artists,” Lyons explained. “ Many of them must have had the skill and desire to make art, but gaining access to the training and being accepted as a professional artist was much more difficult for women than for men.”*

In 2011, Lyons was guest curator of the exhibition 'Skirting Convention: Illinois Women Artists, 1840 to 1940' which ran from October 2011 through January 2012 at Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences (Peoria), and later the Quincy Art Center and the Tarbell Art Center (Charleston).

Subsequently, Lyons guest curated the exhibition 'Making Their Mark: Illinois Women Artists 1940 to 1960' which ran from October 2015 through January 2016 at the Peoria Riverfront Museum before traveling to the Quincy Art Center and the Freeport Art Museum.

Lyons summed up her exhibitions, “Together these artworks celebrate the accomplishments of a century of creative women in our state, and begin a new chapter in understanding the history of art made in Illinois, made by both men and women.”

Chandler “Channy” Lyons Wildemuth of Peoria died on February 1, 2017 after a year-long battle with colon cancer.

*Journal Gazette, Matoon, IL, June 5, 2012, page 14.