The Macoupin Art Collective is breathing new life into the Main Street of Staunton, Illinois, most recently with the addition of a striking abstract mural. But at the front door of the MAC, there’s a nod to the area’s roots as a farming community: a sign reminding those who enter to stay “one cow apart” during the pandemic.
(MAC founder Brandace Cloud laughingly recounts that a homeschool student informed her that cows are actually closer to nine feet than six feet long.)
Some may be surprised to find a thriving art collective in this town of 5,000 people, 40 miles from the Gateway Arch. But the MAC has experienced incredible growth in its five years of existence — in 2019, it served more than 6,000 students.
“It’s quite extraordinary, the amount of people that want to come in to the MAC,” says Cloud.
Like her art collective, Cloud has ties all over the St. Louis metro region. She’s attended universities and worked with artists on both sides of the Mississippi River — and now her own creative endeavor, the MAC, is celebrating five years of bringing people together from all over the region in the name of art.
Cloud’s career began when she attended Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois, and continued with an art program at Webster University in Webster Groves. There, she first studied photography but then discovered her love for ceramics. That love took her to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she learned how to build kilns and developed her pottery techniques.
After graduating from SIUE, she volunteered at the Edwardsville Arts Center for five years, in an effort to stay involved in the arts after graduating.
“One of my teachers at Webster said that it was so sad that nobody stayed in the arts once they finished art school,” Cloud said. “So, I was determined to stay in the arts.”
Five years ago, Cloud established the MAC to do just that. The collective first found its footing for three years in a building that was rent-free, thanks to a generous donation. The unexpected amount of support that the MAC received allowed the organization to purchase a building of its own on Main Street about a year ago.
In addition to class fees and community donations of products and services, Cloud says the art collective has received considerable donations each year it’s been open — totaling $15,000 to $25,000 annually — and in 2018 received its first grant for $500. The amount of grants increased substantially after that, with the MAC having received $3,500 in grants in 2019.
Before the pandemic, in-person classes were the main source of income for the MAC. Not being able to host those classes was a big loss, but there was a silver lining: the opportunity it provided the MAC team to put energy into acquiring grants. Their hard work resulted in more than $30,000 for the collective in 2020, and much of what has been raised has gone into renovating their space.
“We really focused internally,” says Cloud, “so that when the pandemic is over, then we could be even stronger, get out even more into the community and have more people into the MAC.”
Undoubtedly, part of the community response to the MAC is due to the gap it fills for area residents. Cloud notes that the town does not have art in its public schools, something the collective helped to temporarily remedy in 2019 by offering an after-school art program. While the pandemic disrupted the after-school art program, the MAC team currently puts together weekly craft bags for students to pick up as a continuation of it.
The classes offered at the collective go beyond painting, from quilting to couples’ wheel throwing to making hammered jewelry.
“If you want to learn something, then we’ll find you a teacher, and if you know how to teach something, we’ll find you students,” Cloud said. “And however people will use the space, we’re open for that.”
Cloud noted the MAC started seeing regular class goers drop off in attendance once they started focusing in on a particular medium.
“This kept happening and we didn’t realize it until we really started to pay attention to it — these people were setting up practices at home and they were making art at home and they had bought pottery wheels and kilns and were setting up their own home studios,” Cloud said. “I really think that was something that was so cool. We’re creating these hobbies and these practices for friends and they’re living it.”
Clay sculptor Rebekah Dawn of Mulberry Mud has taught at the MAC for about three years. She lives in Mulberry Grove, Illinois, which is about 35 miles from Staunton.
“I think that it’s the humanitarian core, and they way that they encourage people to participate and give back to the community,” she said of the MAC’s success. “The way they make art packs for foster kids and the way they are always looking for ways to extend their reach and they’re always inviting people to help them extend their reach.”
Those art packs are part of the MAC’s latest program, Fostering Friends. They put together 200 kits filled with art supplies for children entering the foster care system in Macoupin County.
“We wanted to make sure that those kids had something to work on to, you know, keep their hands busy and learn about art,” Cloud said. “And so I think making sure that we’re reaching out to the kids and getting them art materials, even if we can’t get them instruction, I think that with the access to the materials, it’s helpful.”
Rocky Pardo is an award-winning metal smithing artist, and her company Rocky Pardo Jewelry is soon to be based in Alton, Illinois. Pardo has taught at the MAC for several years and she echoed Dawn’s sentiments, saying she loves how supportive and community-based the MAC, and Cloud, are.
“Both Cloud and the MAC are inviting and accessible,” she said. “I think that there’s no idea too big or too small and they will always be willing to make it happen as best as they can.”
Pardo’s notion lends itself well to what Cloud says is one of her secrets to success: never saying no. That philosophy was most recently illustrated by MAC members building and decorating an outdoor food pantry for a local church who reached out for help.
“The pantry has been sitting at the shop now and we’ve had three different volunteers working on it, painting it and getting it ready,” Cloud said. “And so, if a community organization asks us to do something, we’ll do it.”
Cloud also recently said ‘yes’ to a grant from Healing Illinois, a racial healing initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services in partnership with The Chicago Community Trust.
She and her team set out to find a muralist of color to create a 100-foot painting on the side of the MAC building and landed on Cbabi Bayoc.
“Cbabi’s work, it just spoke to us as mothers,” Cloud said, “And he was reaching out in his work to being a father and trying to create these positive role models of fathers for children of color that didn’t have that. And that really struck a chord with us and then his work — on top of the concept of his work — was just beautiful and we love the abstractness of it. And so we were excited to be able to work with him on the mural. It’s huge and it’s bright and it’s colorful and it’s abstract, and it’s just lovely.”
Byaoc is an internationally known visual artist and illustrator based in St. Louis. His name is an acronym for Creative Black Artist Battling Ignorance and Blessed African Youth of Creativity. Cloud said he drove back and forth from St. Louis to Staunton four days in a row to complete the artwork.
Cloud said there were some initial concerns with how the mural might be received in the small town. However, the community loved it.
“We were hesitant with it being so bright, bold, and not traditional to what our community is used to,” says Cloud, “but the outpouring of positive feedback was really exciting.”
Cloud says the next major project they’re hoping to work on is an art bus that they would use to bring art to children throughout the region who don’t already have access to such resources.
“We really want the art bus so that it kind of goes hand in hand with the pandemic — because what really happens after the pandemic? Is anybody going to be comfortable hanging out in small spaces together? I don’t think so,” says Cloud. “So our bus allows us to be outside. It allows us to have those really cool things like potter’s wheels and stained-glass grinders, and, and then to be outside and space them apart.”
And accessibility, according to artist and MAC instructor Ruthi Kahl, is what the collective is all about.
“It’s a safe space for a class that is a couple hours of exploration,” Kahl said. “There is no judgement on skill levels, there’s no prerequisite of having to know anything about it.”
“It’s ‘come in, here’s a safe space for you to let go and create.’”