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Finding their inspiration: Amboy artist and business owners think outside – and inside – the box

December 25, 2018

Bright paintings and shadowboxed scenes on the walls give customers at Amboy Arts & Antiques their first idea that there’s something special about this store.

While there’s something old inside the four walls, there’s something new on them – the owners’ artwork.

Shirley Guay and Rosalie Koldan, both Chicago natives, have combines their antiques business with their passion for art. Their abilities are different branches of the same tree, but both feel strongly about their work.

Both Guay and Koldan were born in the Chicago area and worked in Cook County, Koldan as a deputy sheriff and Guay as a public school art teacher.

Buying property in Woodhaven Lakes in Sublette is what led them to this neck of the woods, and eventually to Amboy, where their shop has become a fixture downtown, offering art and antiques for more than a decade, and becoming a tourist attraction for summer campers.

Koldan didn’t learn her creative craft from a formal education; she’s an assemblage artist, working with found objects. Her first step was a yard sale book on Salvador Dali and a camera purchased by her mother, given to her at age 15.

Discovering art by Brut, Naive and Outsider – people who worked outside of the rules – intrigued her.

“Because of them, we now have a redefined role of art in our society,” she wrote in her resume. “Working strictly intuitively, they found ways to create art that is nontraditional and uninhibited. That is what I enjoy doing.”

Koldan’s works tell stories with the objects she’s found – she can take an old piano tuner’s case that was beaten up and broken and give it new life as a piece of art.

“There’s always a catalyst,” Koldan said, “whether it’s the box itself or an item that I pick up.”

The pair even have a store full of inventory for inspiration and materials for art projects.

“You know, I always say that if it doesn’t sell, I’ll use it in an art piece,” Koldan said during a 2017 interview.

In one work, Koldan wanted to pay homage to the late poet-singer/songwriter-novelist Leonard Cohen.

“I researched his life and I created things that were symbolic of important things in his life to sort of tell the story of Leonard Cohen and his writing, but it was a challenge because I’m trying to make words into a visual,” she said, “but I think I pulled it off, and in the process I fell in love with Leonard Cohen. He was a magnificent writer.”

Koldan has been collecting found objects for 25 to 30 years.

“I’ll sift through all of my objects until find something that I can use that will go with another object, even though they may not have been made to go together in one lifetime.”

Sometimes Koldan’s work attracts customers’ attention in an unusual way.

“They’re shopping for antiques and I’ve seen them actually try to grab something out of the boxes [used for Koldan’s artwork],” Guay said, “because they think it’s for sale and they want it.”

Creativity and inspiration aren’t the only skills an artist like Koldan needs. You have to know how to glue, too.

Guay said she’s seen works by others where you can see glue hanging out. Not so with Koldan’s work.

“When you work with objects like this, they can’t fall apart,” Guay said. “You’re moving them. You want to make sure this piece isn’t going to fall off, so she has to be the specialist in how to adhere something so it’s going to hold, but at the same time, you don’t see glue marks, so I think that’s a skill.”

“I want this to last just as if you were buying a painting,” Koldan said.

But if it is a painting a person’s looking for, that’s where Guay comes in.

A painter, Guay attended Harold Washington College in Chicago. Locally, her works are in the permanent collection at Loveland Museum in Dixon.

“What I find wonderful about creating art is that I am free to build, sculpt, paint and print, and let my imagination run wild,” she wrote in her resume.

“I basically call myself an abstract realist,” she said.

When she started painting, she’d do portraits, still lifes and landscapes, but she was beginning to feel bored. Then she turned to realism, combining nature with her desire to paint those traditional subjects.

“And when I started doing it, I could feel that I was really making it my own,” Guay said. “I could say, ‘Yeah, I like that, I haven’t seen that before.’ This is truly an expression of how I see the world.”

There’s another theme running through her work – stressing that people are connected not only to nature, but also to each other.

“So in those paintings you’ll see animals. You’ll see different types of people: African-American, Asian, you can see European-Americans, all kinds of images,” she said.

Her palette is one that’s rich in colors. She calls her subjects “rainbow people.”

“I make people who are all colors,” Guay said. “And even when I’m doing that you can kind of see the ethnicity of the portrait, so basically that’s what I’m doing.”

Guay said her work challenges people to really see what’s in front of them.

Discussing one of her works that hangs on the shop’s walls, she pointed out how some people “might see a face down at the left-hand side, [or] you can see an animal coming up. You can see a bird coming up from the bottom,” she said.

While some might think that leaving a metro area for a rural home would limit their audience, the duo said there’s been no shortage of appreciation for their work.

“Since coming out here I’ve gotten a lot of collectors, which makes me really happy,” Guay said. “I’ll go to Dixon and I’ll have people say, ‘I got one. I got one. I’ve got some of your artwork,’ and it kind of validates my existence on the planet to see people doing things like that.”

Recently, Guay had surgery on her hand and has had to battle tremors in it. In doing so, she learned she could control an X-Acto knife, so she decided to do 50 collages, calling it her Recuperation Series. She thought it was fun and that 50 soon became more.

“I said, ’You know what? I’m going to call it Recuperation 100, so I did 100 collages, and we did some rehabilitation of this room.”

Then they had an art opening, and Guay sold 45 of her collages. She sent 10 to a gallery in Chicago and donated two to Pay-It-Forward House in Sycamore.

Koldan and Guay said in an email Pay-It-Forward is a healthcare hospitality house established to provide a home-away-from-home for family and friends of patients receiving medical treatment.

“It was a tremendous relief knowing Rosalie was close by and cared for while I was hospitalized,” Guay said.

Their generosity in sharing their passion for art also has included donations to Sinnissippi Centers’ annual fundraiser. Sinnissippi is a community-based behavioral healthcare center serving Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

Looking around the shop, Guay said, “This is our passion. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted. She’s always been an inspiration to me. When she turned 90, she started to go blind, so she started making pots, working in clay. If something’s not working, you just keep on doing, but you maybe have to move to a different media, or maybe it will take you a lot longer to finish a painting than if everything was working. The gift is to know that you can still get up and do it. It may be different, but you’re still doing it. When I can’t move, well, I’ll write a book. Just talking to the tape recorder and write a book. That’s what I find so wonderful about delving into that creative world that you can live like that.”

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