NIU today | Rhiannon Gurley, ’02, brings the local community together through art

Rhiannon Gurley, 2002, credits NIU’s tough art and design teachers with teaching her what she needed to succeed in her career.

Rhiannon Gurley, 2002, has chosen to live by the motto “Do what you can with what you have where you are”.

In the past 20 years since graduating from NIU, it has meant many different things to her as she has taken on various roles in the United States and abroad, ranging from corporate design work for advertising agencies to program planning as a community art teacher. Yet she has brought an appreciation for art and design and community organizing to all of her ventures, creating her own niche wherever she goes.

As an award-winning artist, Gurley has created a schedule for art camps and after-school programs, including two Montessori schools. She has also served as an assistant college graphic design instructor, taught non-design subjects at Benedictine University and MacMurray College, and worked for a Wisconsin municipality as an arts-based community development coordinator.

In 2015, she founded Our Vibrant Community (OVC), a social enterprise dedicated to producing arts-based community development needs to ensure access, affordability and empowerment for all ages. The organization’s goal is to enrich lives, develop skills and improve the economic vitality of communities in Illinois and Wisconsin.

“These classes can offer adaptive arts methods for people with disabilities, as well as sign language communication for the deaf and hard of hearing community,” said Gurley, who is a hard of hearing person herself.

Over the past few years, Gurley has become something of a community organizer, always creating opportunities around art and community. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, OVC hosted a virtual after-school program to teach sign language to community members. Previously, the program held Art Bike Parades to creatively educate bike safety by decorating their bikes and parading through their neighborhoods under the direction of their Alderman. OVC has also partnered with the Rutledge Youth Foundation in Springfield, Illinois to create a Harry Potter Family Fest to raise money for an arts program for the foundation’s adoptive teens.

Gurley became a beloved community organizer in the many communities where she resided. Sometimes, when it was difficult to find positions that incorporated her creativity and community development and wellness skills, she created her own opportunities.


In 2015, Gurley founded Our Vibrant Community (OVC) – a social enterprise dedicated to producing arts-based community development.

“I’ve been working in fine art since I held a pencil,” she says. “I considered being an art teacher, but chose graphic design for a broader job market. Over the years, however, I have learned that it is essential to embrace the skills you cultivate and recognize how much they can enrich your life even if they are not tied to your degree.

Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, Gurley viewed college as a way to experience new things. At 18, Gurley wanted to be surrounded by the arts and planned to work in Chicago after graduation. She decided that NIU would be a good fit due to its proximity to the city, and didn’t find out about its well-respected graphic design program until after she started as a student there.

Gurley also found support from the University’s much sought-after Deaf and Hard of Hearing Department, which is now housed within the University’s Disability Resource Center.

“Back then, in 1997, many people with special needs wouldn’t even dream of going to college let alone graduating first generation,” she said. “As a hard of hearing person, I felt very supported by the deaf community at the college. I was exposed to more students with the same life challenges, used their resource center and participated at the NIU Deaf Club.

Not having traveled much as a young adult, Gurley considered NIU to be one big community.

“It had everything I needed and I rarely visited Chicago,” she said. “Life in the international dorm has quenched the thirst to meet people from all over the world. The art galleries were always spinning with plenty to enjoy.

DeKalb also had plenty of other new experiences for Gurley, like she helped out at the health food co-op, rode her bike around campus, had her first chai tea at the cafe, went dancing at Otto’s with friends, and worked with the North Star Newspaper Ads and Layout Team.

The highly competitive graphic design program taught Gurley how to find inspiration under tight deadlines.


Many Gurley courses can offer adaptive arts methods for those with difficulties, as well as sign language communication for the deaf and hard of hearing community. Gurley created this fundraising poster for the NIU Deaf Club in 2001.

“We went from having 170 design students to just 30 to go through the program,” she recalls. “Many students had to change course or even change college. The competition helped put into perspective if you really wanted to get into the field and if you had what it takes to succeed.

Gurley credits its strict instructors and challenging curriculum for preparing it for the real world of art and design.

“We learned a hard work ethic,” she said. “By teaching us how to design software, we became more innovative and increased our desire to stay true to your passions. Additionally, we have developed a tough skin which is necessary to handle criticism from customers and potential customers. During the program, my classmates and I had such a dislike for certain teachers, until after graduation we realized that they were great teachers.

After graduating, Gurley found that NIU’s highly selective curriculum made her BFA in Graphic Design even more respected when applying for jobs. Although his career has seen many twists and turns, it has always been in a spirit of discovery and learning.

“I took the opportunities that came my way to explore the world,” she said. “I went from working in marketing in northern Illinois, serving youth in St. Louis, and working as a volunteer director in Springfield, Illinois. I then moved into marketing for a retreat center in Costa Rica before serving adults with disabilities as director of arts education and then planning my first major event as an arts walk with a municipality.

Over the years, Gurley’s desire to engage with the public grew, and she knew her bubbly personality wasn’t being used behind a computer screen. In addition to working full-time, she began adding to her “palette”, teaching art to young people at an art center, volunteering as an event planner and participating as a Member of the Board of Directors.

Yet his journey continues. In 2009, Gurley earned a master’s degree in organizational management from Benedictine University, capping her experience with a thesis on creativity in the workplace.

Although the OVC has been a part-time endeavor thus far, the assignment has allowed Gurley to experience and deepen his knowledge of community development, event production and creating a safe space. for individuals.

“I know I achieved success because of the positive feedback I received,” she said. “Individuals are returning to art classes, events have reached high attendance and adults are happily commenting that they haven’t created in years. I am preparing to expand OVC as I find it crucial to have the arts to improve our well-being, especially in this uncertain time. »