Against all odds, Illinois’ Allyson Cayce and friends mount a blockbuster exhibit of outsider artist Ed Lantzer’s murals

Visitors with Ed Lantzer mural (1)

Remember last summer’s columns about northern Michigan woodworker Ed Lantzer? Often homeless, Ed spent his last years fulfilling a mission. He created 30 marquetry panels (8’x4’) from tiny wood shapes of elaborate religious scenes.

Recap: In March, 2015, on an airplane, Allyson Cayce of Libertyville, IL, met seat-mate LaShelle VanHouten of Ellsworth, MI. LaShelle, a schoolteacher, had written a book about Lantzer, who died 7 years ago. She told Allyson about the panels, in storage for the past 2 years.

At the Ed Lantzer exhibit from left Amy Shanahan LaShelle VanHouten and Allyson Cayce (1)

At the Ed Lantzer exhibit from left: Amy Shanahan LaShelle VanHouten and Allyson Cayce.

“People need to see them,” Allyson said. “I can help.”

Allyson’s a mom of older teens. She’d been mulling over the next stage of her life. She’d never seen the murals. She had zero experience displaying art or staging events and “no clue” about how to proceed. Still, once she made the offer, she was determined.

“If I’d thought about it, I’d have run the other way. I felt called to help create a home for a homeless artwork by a homeless man.”

Allyson invited LaShelle to give a book talk in Libertyville. Word of the proposed exhibit spread. A friend of a friend was trying to sell the 115-year-old Foulds Pasta factory. In November, Chris and Suzanne Bradley, members of the family that owned Foulds, agreed to donate part of the building for 6 months.

Good friends Amy and Mike Shanahan helped Allyson and husband Doug clear out thousands of pallets of pasta. The foursome cleaned and painted. Designer friend Kathy Young helped transform 3000 sq. ft. of factory space into a pop-up gallery through black paint and black curtains.

“It needed to be simple, in line with Ed’s vision,” Allyson says. Ed insisted there be no charge to see the murals. That meant keeping out of pocket costs low. The murals were delivered. “There were never any contracts. It was: Here are the murals. Here’s the space. Figure it out.”

Problems kept cropping up. Paul Hresko, of Elk Rapids, MI, chairs My Father’s Love, which oversees the murals. A worried Allyson called Paul. There was no heat in the factory. It was 40 degrees outside.

“Remember what Ed taught us,” Paul said. “The Father will provide.”

Within a week, an HVAC guy heard about the project. He volunteered about $3,000 worth of his time. Someone donated carpet. Someone else, a chandelier. Bob Andrus, a 90 year old retired ad exec, created signage stands out of pasta drying racks. New friend Jim Connell created a logo and named the space Foulds Gallery. Allyson advised donors there’d be no publicity. “This is about Ed’s legacy, not ours.”

Allyson and friends “dumpster dove” for materials including tables and benches—seemingly appropriate since Ed scavenged trash bins for the woods he used.

The first weekend the gallery was open, in early December, there were 700 visitors. Soon after, the village shut the gallery down. Allyson hadn’t gotten permission to convert a factory into a gallery.

“I didn’t know I needed permission,” Allyson says. “I panicked.”

She called Paul. “The Father won’t allow that to happen,” Paul said. “Plead with the council.”

“I’m so afraid of public speaking, I didn’t even speak at my sister’s wedding,” she protested.

She spent 3 days practicing her remarks. Lisa Elert, a friend from her Rosary prayer group, gave her a Praying Mary. Standing in front of the mayor, clutching the doll, Allyson said, “I’m too nervous to read my speech. I just want to tell you my husband and I and our friends have worked hundreds of hours the last 3 weeks. I have so much to lose and zero to gain. I ask you to consider the fact that we’re just trying to do something good for the community.”

Permission granted.

Allyson’s friends volunteered as docents. Beth Olinger, also from the Rosary prayer group, brought her 11 year old son Max. He was spellbound by the murals, spotting images others had missed. Beth took charge of Sunday volunteers. Max served as docent for his school class visit.

Russian Jewish immigrant Alla Pasikhov came to a meet ‘n’ greet. Viewing the panels, she noticed considerable Jewish symbolism. Allyson invited her to become a docent. Alla became an expert on the panels.

No signage was allowed on the building (a local restriction). There was no money for advertising. Allyson and friends handed out postcards. A Catholic radio station invited Allyson to host a free booth at a local fair. Word kept spreading. School groups, senior centers, book clubs, special needs kids, homeless people, woodworkers showed up, some many times.

Victoria, from nearby Winnetka, a high functioning autistic 21 year old, came with a family friend. She said, “I’ve seen these murals before. In 6th grade, I had a vision of them. The walls were gold, not black.” Her friend suggested she was confused. Victoria insisted she wasn’t.

Allyson learned Victoria had auditioned to sing for the Pope. She invited her to sing at a Mass held at the gallery. 75 attended. Victoria’s soprano voice was so beautiful, Allyson says, “Everyone was moved to tears.”

Allyson came up with a quiz game for young visitors, who searched for clues and images in the panels. On Easter Sunday, singer/songwriter Peter Brush debuted a song about the murals. The service was attended by Tony Bradley, whose family owned Foulds Pasta.

With Ed Lantzer Last Supper panels from left Allyson Cayce Suzy Farbman and Alla Pasikhov (1)

With Ed Lantzer Last Supper panels from left Allyson Cayce Suzy Farbman and Alla Pasikhov.

Alla Pasikhov served as docent on my recent visit. She pointed out a single diamond in Jesus’ throat in “The Last Supper.” That 1” piece was the first of what became a septych of nearly 3 million diamonds in different woods. Panels were created with no preliminary drawings (Ed could neither draw nor write), from visions in Ed’s head. The initial diamond refers to the biblical quote, “In the beginning was the word.”

Alla pointed out bumblebees, an ancient Christian symbol. The prophet Elijah’s chair. Constantine’s shields. (Constantine was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity.) And so much more.

The Jewish star consists of 2 triangles, Alla said. The triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity. The downward triangle represents female energy; the upward, male energy. Interlocking, they symbolize perfection or completion. (As the grandmother of 3 girls and 3 boys, I loved this explanation.)

Foulds Gallery recently closed. The murals moved to nearby Carmel High School. Allyson, now on the board of My Father’s Love, will take the summer off “to spend much needed time with my family.” As to her future, I’d guess she’s taking a message from Ed. “The Father will provide.”

Allyson, who always preferred being “anonymous,” is anonymous no longer. Strangers come up to her in the supermarket and say, “You’re the mural lady.” About the murals, she says, “Aside from my family, they’re the best gift I ever received. They brought peace and joy to 17,000 people.”

(Thanks, friends Renee and Jim D’Amico, for introducing me to your powerhouse daughter. And thanks, Allyson, for a transcendent morning and remarkable story.)

Students from St. Joseph School in Libertyville tour the Ed Lantzer exhibition

Students from St. Joseph School in Libertyville tour the Ed Lantzer exhibition

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