The day each winter that she receives submissions from local high school art teachers for The Eric Show is like Christmas to 40 North’s Kelly White.
Every year, techniques expand for the local high school art show. The variety grows. Concepts become clearer.
“Early on, we would kind of get the same assignment done by seven different students,” White said. “And now, it’s so different what students are working on.”
The Eric Show was created in 2010 by Dale and Peg Steffensen, who wanted to find a way to honor their son, Eric, who was killed in an accident with a drunk driver in 1970.
Eric was set to major in art at University of Illinois before his death, and his work with a variety of media won him awards at the local scholastic competition.
“I’ve seen Eric’s work,” White said. “Talk about sophisticated. He was doing amazing sculptures and paintings that were beyond college level stuff Dale, I think, saw how much (the competitions) validated and inspired him.”
The scholastic competition, though, eventually fizzled out, leaving a hole in the local art scene.
In 2010, the Steffensens found a fitting way to honor their son, creating The Eric Show.
This year, 26 local high school teachers from 17 schools picked 200 pieces of artwork from different media to bring to the show each year, hosted at The Illini Union’s Art Gallery.
As the show progressed from year to year, White noticed a pleasant effect it was having on the artists and teachers. The show created inspiration and conversation that pushed the work forward into bolder territory.
“I have heard from teachers that it does create this kind of purpose, because especially if they’re juniors or seniors, they really want to get into Eric Show, and they really want potentially to win an award or be displayed,” White said. “And then they come and see all of these works and are inspired by the other students’ work, and I think some teachers get inspired by, ‘What was the assignment here? What did you tell them? Because to get some of these things out of them, did you assign that, did you just come up with that?’
“I think over time, this has influenced and enhanced itself every year because it kind of inspires them.”
She said some of the artwork is technically excellent, and with others, she can tell the artist is attempting to say something conceptually, a skill that she’s seen grow over the last decade. The winning colored-pencil drawing, “Unseen” by Champaign Central’s Anya Shannon, had both.
The drawing depicts a face with holes in it, through which the colorful background is visible.
“It’s obviously beautifully rendered,” White said, “but there’s also the concept.”
The work that White was excited about, though, went far beyond Shannon’s drawing, into the watercolor and acrylic paintings that evoked emotion, the pointillism drawings and the scratch boards that gave their subjects texture, and the sculptures and photos that provided depth.
Without this show, many of those pieces of art wouldn’t leave the walls of the schools.
“I really think all of that validation that Eric used to get, these kids are getting,” White said. “For a lot of artists, one of the biggest things that we need is validation. Because you put your heart on display and it’s scary, so you want to know, like, ‘Yes, we like it. Yes, you’re doing the right thing.’
“If you’re in that art room and you’re making incredible art that people like, and it’s helping you maybe process some thoughts and feelings of the world, it’s magic.”