By Robin Pearson Fitzhugh
Fairhope was founded on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in 1904, not as a railroad or timber community like much of small-town Alabama, but as a home for artists, writers, and intellectuals from around the country. The tradition continues today, with a state-of-the-art library, a year-round theater company, an annual film festival, and two free outdoor concert series. At the core of the visual arts community is the Eastern Shore Art Center, a member-supported non-profit organization that has grown along with Fairhope since the Eastern Shore Art Association’s founding in 1956.
The history of the Art Center began when Edith and Converse Harwell, potters from North Carolina, moved to Fairhope in 1939 and started Pinewood Pottery on the property where the current center stands. Using native clays that are abundant along the Eastern Shore to create their pottery, the Harwells also built a wood-fired brick kiln that is no longer in use but has been preserved on the property in its original location. Their tradition is carried on with the wood-fired anagama kiln behind the Art Center that was completed five years ago and is in regular use by the current crop of potters taking classes and workshops at ESAC.
The Harwells transferred the deed to their Fairhope Single Tax Colony land at the corner of Section and Oak Streets to the Eastern Shore Art Association in 1961. The Percy Whiting Gallery, the first of the current six exhibit galleries, was built in 1965, and the Woolley and Wilson Galleries were added in the next decade. The studio wing designed for teaching all forms of art including photography, painting, sculpture, and pottery was added in 1972, and the open courtyard at the center of the complex was enclosed in 2005 and is now known as the Fairhope Single Tax Gallery. Staff offices and a gift shop featuring 2D and 3D art by local artisans make up the rest of the facility. A complete facelift of the exterior was completed in 2018, including an outdoor patio area on the front that is used for Art Center functions and for private parties throughout the year.
ESAC Director Bryant Galloway Whelan, a Mobile native and a graduate of Auburn with a degree in art and visual communications, has an extensive background as an art director in advertising, an interior designer, and most recently as managing director of the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Whelan is also an accomplished painter in oils and acrylics and is an invited participant in the prestigious Mississippi Art Colony each spring. Having just celebrated her second anniversary as ESAC director, Whelan is proud of the history of the organization that has grown from fifteen original members to a membership of over 800 and she has great plans for its future.
“Since I started at the Art Center in September 2017,” Whelan says, “participation in (quarterly) art classes for adults and children has grown more than forty percent.” ESAC also hosts workshops, which range from one day to week-long, in many different media, and Whelan is looking forward to designing programs for Art Tourism that will include art classes and lectures along with other community activities for participants. She also takes pride in heading up the organization that launched First Friday Art Walk that has grown to a city-wide event each month for downtown Fairhope and brings 400-600 people into the Art Center for the opening reception. “Exhibits in all our galleries change monthly or bi-monthly,” Whelan says, “so there’s always new art to see.”
ESAC activities are not limited to on-campus events. Under the leadership of Outreach Director Nancy Raia, who has been named Alabama Art Educator of the Year twice, art is created with residents of the William Green Veterans Home in Bay Minette each month. Raia also works with students at the Fairhope Rotary Youth Club after school and during the summer as part of Squeaky Sneakers, a program in conjunction with the Weeks Bay Foundation that gives kids a chance to seine for marine life in Mobile Bay and create artwork inspired by the creatures they catch. The Senior to Senior program Raia that designed pairs high school seniors with residents of local nursing homes, giving both generations a greater understanding of each other as they create seasonal artwork together. A visual artist in her own right, Raia hosts workshops for local art teachers and art educators from around the state who take her original ideas back their classrooms. She has also created innovative ways to work with special needs children at the Southwest Regional School for the Deaf and Blind in Mobile, encouraging them to develop their own artistic voices despite the challenges each one of them faces every day. Of her experiences at ESAC over the last eighteen years, Raia says “I enjoy seeing an 87-year-old excitedly tell me ‘I didn’t know I could do this!’ as much as I enjoy hearing a proud 6-year-old say ‘I DID IT!’ Art allows people of any age to create something of their own.”
Next year will be the forty-eighth year that ESAC has hosted the Outdoor Art Show in downtown Fairhope on the third weekend of March. Held in conjunction with the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival, over 400 artists from around the country will have original artwork available for sale at this three-day event that has been listed one of the major attractions in Alabama by the State Department of Tourism and Travel. More recently, ESAC has begun hosting their White Linen Night fundraiser in May to raise funds for operations and special projects during the coming year.
The Eastern Shore Art Center is located at 401 Oak Street in downtown Fairhope and is open free of charge Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more information on upcoming exhibits, classes, workshops andfacility rentals, go to esartcenter.org