ECSU Students Join National Artists for Annual Art Retreat

Students attend a drawing circle at SPLASH in Elizabeth City.

Inside the old Super 10 variety store in downtown Elizabeth City, a large number of artists from across the country gather to paint, hold workshops and show their work each year during the last week of October. Alongside many of these celebrated names in art are Elizabeth City State University design students, working, learning and being inspired, says Prof. Jeff Whelan.

The annual event, which opens later this month, is known as SPLASH, and ever since its inception, ECSU art and design professors and students have been taking advantage of the opportunity. Whelan, along with Prof. Clarence Goss, has been holding class for their students in the midst of the artist retreat since 2014.

“That’s big, that’s big for our students to see working artists,” says Whelan, who added that this year his department is partnering with College of the Albemarle’s art department during the event.

Whelan will not only hold regular class time in the space for 12 ECSU students, but he will also conduct an open drawing circle. In the middle of the circle is a live model, and students are instructed to produce life studies of the model using charcoal. And the public is also invited to sit in, and learn from the ECSU professor, and also work with the University students.

The SPLASH event began years ago as a part of Arts of the Albemarle’s annual summer art showcase. It eventually evolved into a June artist retreat, and later a fall event, inviting regional artists to paint and share work.

During that time ECSU students would join other artists, working in the large studio space downtown. Eventually, SPLASH began attracting nationally celebrated artists, many of whom began holding workshops for the participants, including students.

The creative environment also began to provide ECSU students with another avenue for expression, working on a project Whelan dubbed, “Change by Design.” The graded project came out of recognition that downtown Elizabeth City was in need of fresh ideas for change, and Whelan wanted his students to have a practical application for the work they were doing on campus, and in the classroom.

Through “Change by Design,” each student is tasked with researching project proposals during SPLASH week, and also interviewing area residents about their perceived desire for change within the community – retail space, parks, or anything design related. The projects are then put together and the highest graded projects are presented to city leaders in the spring.

This year’s presentation comes with the possibility of impacting Elizabeth City, potentially seeing one of the projects come to life. Carrie Seufer is a 2015 ECSU graduate and her project proposal several years ago caught the attention of city leaders, with positive results.

Seufer’s project, said Whelan, was called “Harbor Market.” She created a plan to restore the vacant Mattress Outlet building on Water Street and turn it into a retail center.

The idea was well received, so much so that a large commercial developer took it seriously and wanted to adapt her project to their plans for Elizabeth City development. In the end the project for the Mattress Outlet building didn’t happen, but Whelan says Seufer’s work also led that company to making plans to restore the historic Southern Hotel, located on Main Street – plans that are currently in development.

Something new this year for ECSU, says Whelan, is the Juried Student Art Competition, to be held at K.E. White on Nov. 1. Promoted as a part of the SPLASH week, the competition is for ECSU students only, and welcomes submissions from many disciplines including painting, sculpting, photography, graphic design, and film and video.

Whelan says College of the Albemarle art professor Christina Wisner will jure the competition. First, second, and third place prizes, as well as honorable mentions, will be awarded to the students.

SPLASH week begins Oct. 30, and ECSU students will, as in years past, get a chance to see firsthand what it is like to immerse oneself into the work of a working artist. It is, Whelan says, a great opportunity for a great visual arts department and its students.