Elizabeth City is becoming known for its strong creative community, with new arts events and destinations popping up across the city.
An event that has helped put Elizabeth City on the map as an artists' haven is SPLASH, a twice-yearly, week-long event that gathers hundreds of artists and art admirers from throughout the country and Canada to the Harbor of Hospitality. Once here, they collaborate, create and cultivate the creative economy of northeast North Carolina.
The community has embraced SPLASH with dozens of volunteers, local businesses and nonprofits working together to make each event a success and a showcase for the area. Carolyn Peel, SPLASH founder, says the event began in 2008 and is constantly evolving and growing. It features communal work spaces, artists workshops, discussions, demonstrations and meet-and-greet opportunities with nationally known and local artists at venues across the city. Dozens of arts mediums have been represented at the event, including ceramics, painting with acrylics, plein air painting, wood carving and a fiber studio.
"The goal was to show and tell [that] this is what our downtown could look like, feel like, sound like," says Peel. "It was a big success, however we still felt like we needed to show and tell again!"
Before long, Peel says organizers were able to include events for children and classes for local teachers, and they created the very popular SPLASH Studio – open studio space in the former "Super 10" building on Main Street.
"By using a borrowed space, we show how the arts can bring a community together and add vibrancy to a downtown," Peel says.
Nurturing Interest in the Arts
Residents also appreciate the benefits the event brings to the community, such as additional sales for restaurants and other businesses. In conjunction with SPLASH, there have been fundraiser dinners, auctions, low country boils and other activities that benefit local non-profit organizations.
"The more people who are engaged, the more people will support the arts and get excited about arts and downtown," Peel says. "We reach out to the whole city."
The Creative Life
SPLASH, held in June and in the autumn, has brought exposure of all Elizabeth City has to offer. Artists who travel here to participate say they are pleasantly surprised to discover the city's vibrant arts community.
"SPLASH has turned me into a one-woman booster club for Elizabeth City," says Jodie Robinson, a painter from Durham. "I tell a lot of people about the friendly people, the beautiful historical downtown and the river, and the great restaurants. Those are the things that drew me in, and the creative energy I gain from SPLASH keeps me returning."
Award-winning fine artist Jane Filer, whose work has been included in numerous prestigious collections and includes a 45-foot mural in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, has participated in SPLASH since its inception.
"It's wonderful how welcoming the people in Elizabeth City are to artists," says Filer, who paints in Chapel Hill and in Santa Fe, N. M. "Elizabeth City is beautiful and has everything an artist needs to live well and be creative."
The Ripple Effect of Arts Energy
Organizers say the energy and excitement of SPLASH is fueling more and more local arts-related events and activities.
"It's about looking beyond a pretty painting," Peel says.
These events include First Friday Art Walks, in which downtown art studios, restaurants and other businesses are open late and musicians perform on the first Friday of each month.
The nonprofit Arts of the Albemarle runs the Jaquelin Jenkins Gallery and the 516 Gallery, which feature more than 250 artists. AoA, which also houses the 230-seat Maguire Theatre and the AoA School of the Arts – offering classes for all ages -- began hosting "Wine and Paint" nights for participants to sip wine and create their masterpieces.
Arts-based businesses are opening in Elizabeth City, such as Studio 511, which offers painting parties and classes in all media. Elizabeth City now has several art galleries with programs for adults and children.
Locals say they have never had so many opportunities to experience art.
"I felt like an 'art missionary' years ago when I first started teaching in Pasquotank's schools," says Mary Ann Mason, an artist and art educator who has lived in Elizabeth City for much of her life. "Back then, there were no elementary art teachers. Now, I see so many of my students being able to enjoy an art community that continues to grow each year. And the arts are bringing people downtown, providing customers to downtown businesses and, more importantly, creating community."