As more people move to eastern North Carolina to retire or raise families, communities here are undergoing a transformation. Take downtown areas of New Bern, Greenville and Kinston for example. These cities have undergone major revitalization and now, boast a variety of independent shops, award winning restaurants, art galleries and craft breweries. Now, the rural town of Farmville, home to about 5,000 people seeks to become the next creative center and cultural hub in eastern North Carolina. Todd Edwards is a member of a volunteer association focused on economic development called The Farmville Group.
“Farmville is traditionally a tobacco town. It’s a wonderful part of our history, we honor that in many ways, and it’s who we were. But we need to look forward and figure out who we’re going to be. For us, we are now singly focused on becoming the, or at least one of, the creative centers here in eastern North Carolina.”
Just last week, East Carolina University’s School of Art and Design announced plans to open a hand-blown glass art studio in Farmville, the first university based program of its kind in North Carolina. The idea for the program came about two years ago when The Farmville Group wanted to create a program where art students could hone their skills. In turn, the community should benefit economically and culturally from this infusion of arts.
“We collectively thought you know what, we need to lead this with the arts. And just decided we wanted to pursue an incubator for young artists to come and land here, give them an inexpensive place to be, a place where they can be together and try to launch them on their careers.”
Edwards didn’t have to look far, less than 15 miles away, to find the largest art program in North Carolina. The Farmville Group presented the idea of creating art studios in a storefront building to the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at East Carolina University Dr. Chris Buddo and it was met with receptivity. After a tour the space, He says they proposed the idea of building a glass blowing studio.
“And so we went back to them with this idea and they just absolutely loved it. The idea is that glass is something of a spectator sport. Something that people would be interested in seeing. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone to one of those studios where they make glass. I could sit there all day, it’s just mesmerizing to watch them do that. Immediately, they bought into the idea. They said we have a different building we have to think about. So they said let’s talk in a week and we’ll get back.”
To make the idea a reality, stars had to align. Artists need a large open space to work in, the price had to be right, and the building had to be renovated to specifications required for ECU to be able to have classes there. The Farmville Group proposed a new location, an old Gulf gas station built in 1946 right in the heart of Farmville. The building was donated to the DeVisconti Trust by the Allen and Stowe families. Director and Professor of the School of Art and Design Michael Drought remembers seeing the faded white, brick building on West Wilson Street for the first time.
“When we were walking down the street, and they said [this is it], I said perfect! I wasn’t even in the building. Several things are different about this building than a storefront. It’s back from the street, there’s lots of parking, you could drive a school bus up, drive underneath the canopy, drop off students, and then leave and park your bus. So it’s perfect for interacting with the community and what’s going on inside the class.”
Right now, the gas station is currently in the process of being renovated. The building, known now as the “Glass Station” recently received a fresh coat of white paint, with retro accents done in an indigo blue shade. A run-down wooden garage door was replaced with a wall of windows, bringing natural light into the space. Farmville Group member Todd Edwards, also the contractor for the project says they are also fixing the roof and making the necessary structural repairs.
“The artists that want to go in very much want that industrial look so we’ve sandblasted walls, we’ve sealed walls, we’re epoxying existing concrete floors.”
ECU will pay about $14,000 a year, plus utilities to lease the property. When renovations are complete, Dr. Buddo with ECU says the next step is to bring in specialized equipment for blowing glass.
“There will be a furnace, it will have two or three hundred pounds of glass in it at all times. You don’t turn them off. Also, in a glass studio, there are stations they call them glory holes where you reheat your glass, once you’ve gathered it and begun to work it, you reheat it in the glory holes to keep it pliable so you can blow it or pull it or cut it.”
Buddo says six to eight students will be able to work in the studio at one time.
“You always work in pairs, two artists. But you can’t have too many people running around the hot shop where you’re slinging hot glass.”
If you think blowing glass sounds dangerous, that’s because it is. Buddo says safety class is one of the first students will have to pass.
In addition to being an educational space, the Glass Station will be open to the public. Now, people won’t be able to blow glass…that’s reserved for the professional artists. Dr. Buddo imagines people being able to spend an afternoon making a paperweight or a Christmas tree ornament by molding glass in a kiln. Private art studios for local artists should be available as well as a gallery in front. And since glass blowing is such an interesting process, Contractor Todd Edwards says they are designing a viewing platform that will accommodate 30 people.
“It really is like theater. It’s a team sport. It’s not just one person, it takes multiple people to make a piece, everyone playing their part. And it’s very time critical. There are some exciting moments, it involves, there’s so many elements to it. You just have to see it to believe it. And it’s the kind of thing that draws people.”
And that’s exactly what Edwards hopes the Glass Station will do. He sees the project transforming Farmville into a destination for the arts in eastern North Carolina, a sentiment shared with those involved in the planning process from the very beginning.
Edwards says they’re six to eight months away from renovations being complete and equipment installed. Meanwhile, the School of Art and Design will be recruiting two artists to serve as adjunct faculty members. ECU will partner with Pitt Community College and Pitt County Schools to make the facility available for learning opportunities.