East magazine Winter 2008 edition
Cover Story



Mary Edna Burkhead Fraser
’74 (above) knows the very moment when she became an artist. It was during her senior year at ECU when she climbed into the open cockpit of an old airplane piloted by her brother and flew over Sea Island, Ga. She looked down at the tide lapping sandy beaches and was stunned by the subtle beauty of the natural world. Hooked, she began flying regularly over the coast, carrying a camera and leaning over the side of the plane to snap pictures of barrier islands, sounds and estuaries.

She had been double majoring in home economics, with a concentration in clothing and textiles, and interior design—but after that airplane ride she focused exclusively on art. She fell under the guidance of Professor Sarah Edmiston and studied design, color theory and photography. Already interested in textiles, Fraser broadened her artistic vision “so that I was thinking in three dimensions.”

After graduation she enrolled at the Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg, part of the University of Tennessee. There she discovered batik, which involves dye transfers onto silk. After she spent two years mastering direct dye techniques and other styles, admiring teachers told her what every aspiring artist longs to year. “I was told that I could make a living doing this.”

She certainly proved her teachers right. Her batiks, often created on huge canvases that ripple in the air, have attracted critical acclaim—and fetched handsome prices—in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. and in several foreign countries. Working out of studios in Charleston, S.C., Fraser sees the world from the air and even outer space. In 1994, she became the first woman to be honored with a one-person textile exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. She’s the official artist of NASA; her 2001 national touring exhibition depicted the solar system as large-scale silk batiks.

She’s best known in North Carolina for collaborating with Duke University professor Orrin Pilkey to produce the 2003 book, A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands. A review in New Yorker magazine said the “Delicate renderings of the islands by artist Mary Edna Fraser look like vivid aerial-view paintings but are actually batik prints of the coasts, counterbalancing Pilkey’s careful study of the ‘restless ribbons of sand.’”

She draws inspiration from the Japanese Edo prints of the 1600s–1800s but adds a sense of monumental scale. “I used modern dye techniques, fast film photos and satellite imagery, and it all came together for a lifetime of art for me,” Fraser says.

“Between the art I studied at ECU and at Arrowmont, I found my passion. And I grew as a person as well as an artist.”

You can see more of Fraser's art at her web site.


Scott Eagle
’86 MFA ’92 (above) had known since he was a high school student in Winston-Salem that he wanted to study art at East Carolina. “It had a really good reputation, and it had low tuition,” he recalls. He enjoyed his undergraduate work, particularly the frequent exposure to visiting artists from New York. So it’s not surprising that’s exactly where he headed after graduation.

As a 22-year-old fresh out of college, he had work published in magazines and the New York Times. That phase of his life accomplished, Eagle returned to ECU to seek a master of fine arts degree and wound up being offered a temporary job as director of the Wellington Gray Gallery. “One of the best things about this program is that you work in many media,” Scott says. “I had little bits of everything in my thesis show.”

He began teaching here in 2000 and now coordinates the painting programs as well as serving as assistant director of the school and director of its graduate programs. “There is no other comprehensive program like this in North Carolina. We’re still good in every area.”


Dory Daisies Shell, by James Cromartie
You can see more of Cromartie’s art at his web site.

If it hadn’t been for Nelson Rockefeller, James Cromartie ’66 might never have put his art degree from East Carolina College to good use.

As he neared completion of a bachelor of fine arts degree with a painting concentration, Cromartie traveled with some fraternity brothers to Nantucket Island off Massachusetts and fell in love with the place. He completed his degree and two years later, he had his first art show on the island.

At that first show, he struck up a casual conversation with two viewers who seemed especially interested in his work. He found out later that they were Rockefeller, the former governor of New York, and his wife, Happy. They began to buy Cromartie’s art, as did some friends of the Rockefellers who were members of the Firestone family.  

This proved to be quite beneficial for a young artist. “My father had told me he would let me give art a chance, and if I failed, I could come into his real estate business,” Cromartie says.  

When the Rockefellers became Cromartie’s patrons, he had a chance to develop his painting in oils and acrylics. “It gave me time to mess up,” he says.

They assisted him for about four years, after which “they said I was on my own. If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have wound up working in real estate in Charlotte.”

Since then, Cromartie has settled in Nantucket, where he has a gallery and studio, and he has become recognized as a leading practitioner of the so-called “Hard-Edge Realism” style of painting, not unlike Hopper and Wyeth.  

He also is known for his depiction of historic buildings. He executed the official “portrait” of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and he recently finished a portrait of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also did the official painting of the Smithsonian Institution “castle” on the Mall.  

ECC often brought in visiting artists-in-residence to talk about art and finding jobs in art. “One told us, ‘Don’t give up your day job,’” Cromartie says.  

“When I started out, I was told that one in 30,000 was going to make it as an artist. Today, things have changed dramatically. People can make a living from art now. In this country, there is so much more interest in art, and people are more conscious of art.”

Cromartie was interested in art as a high school student in Charlotte, and in the early 1960s the only place to study art at the college level in North Carolina was at East Carolina College. “They had the only viable art department in the state. We were on the third floor of Rawl in the biggest art department in North Carolina.”

As an East Carolina student, Cromartie recalls that he received not only good instruction from the art faculty, especially Tran Gordley and Donald Sexauer, but he also received encouragement. “It was a great art community. The faculty and students hung out together. And East Carolina was not just an art school. It was a college that happened to have a good art program.”

Recent grads

Niki Litts ’02 went straight to graduate school at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Returning home to Raleigh with an MFA, she spent a year figuring out what she really wanted to do. In 2006 she learned that the Kinston Arts Center was searching for a director of education and exhibits. She got the job and a year later is assuming greater responsibilities for programming, maintenance of programs, curating exhibits, installing exhibits and marketing. “Eventually, there will be a time when I move up and into an area with different challenges,” she says.

Tony Breuer MFA ’03 was a successful neurologist trained at Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Medical School before he arrived in Greenville to teach at the Brody School of Medicine. He enjoyed medicine but he had always been attracted to art. So he enrolled in the SOAD and earned MFA in three and a half years. He plans to wind down his medical practice in two or three years and devote all of his time to art. “The professors are working artists, so they practice what they teach, but they don’t want students to imitate their art to ‘please the professor.’ I feel very strongly about my teachers and the school here,” he says.

Christina Miller MFA ’03 spent her junior year studying in Italy, where she first saw the ugly picture that can be caused by mining the precious metals used in jewelry making. Art history class with Ron Graziani further raised Miller’s awareness of the environmental connection between metal smithing and mining, and she mounted an exhibition as part of her graduate work that explored the ethics of that connection. Now an instructor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, she is now considered one of the leaders in the “ethical metal smithing” movement. “I develop projects that are geared to building an awareness of where materials come from that go into our metal smithing. I don’t know where I would be without having taken [Graziani’s] course.”

Director Gil Leebrick readies Wellington B. Gray Gallery for the 2007 Faculty Exhibitition, which runs through Thanksgiving.

he galleries in the Jenkins Fine Arts Center and the sculpture yards outside daily exhibit works of unusual merit by ECU students and faculty. You can see the talent in each piece, but to see the hand that guided these budding artists, you have to stand back and look at the history of fine arts at East Carolina.

It’s a history that begins in 1909 when the college learned the benefit of graduating schoolteachers who also could draw well. It comes into clearer focus in 1962 when East Carolina became the first school in the state to receive national accreditation for its arts programs. And this apparently natural affinity for fine arts can be seen today in the 700 undergraduates and 50 grad students in the School of Art and Design, making it the biggest art school in North Carolina and one of the biggest in the Southeast.

Over the decades, many have left Greenville to become successful artists and influential teachers. We talked with some to hear their stories and to ask how East Carolina influenced them. We met acclaimed batik artist Mary Edna Fraser ’74, the first woman to exhibit work at the National Air and Space Museum, and James H. Cromartie ’66, a prominent historical artist and America’s leading hard-edge realist. We also encountered younger art grads starting interesting careers.

They would like you to know, as they do, that East Carolina has an eye for art.

By Steve Rowe
Photography by Forrest Croce


hen the Cold War was casting a pall over American culture in 1962, East Carolina accomplished something unusual for its time and place. It won national accreditation for its arts education programs, becoming the first in the state to be recognized by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. In 1976 the school did something else unexpected. In an era when swelling enrollments pushed budgets toward dorms and science labs, East Carolina found money to erect a new landmark on campus, the spacious Jenkins Fine Arts Center, providing a nurturing, everything-under-one-roof home for all the fine arts programs and faculty.

That long history and demonstrated commitment to the fine arts today has produced a school that is much larger in enrollment and bolder in scope than is generally known, even by people working in other areas of the university. Time and the contribution of many hands obviously has helped ECU build a vigorous, rigorous arts curriculum that others admire as flexible and practical.  

Today, the School of Art and Design (SOAD) is one of the larger divisions on campus. It offers four undergraduate degrees as well as BFAs in art and design and art education. There are master’s programs in fine arts and art education. SOAD supports 15 separate concentrations, including 13 studio programs—animation, textiles, painting, drawing, illustration, photography, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics and more.

East Carolina has had “the largest program in North Carolina for so long,” says Michael H. Drought, who was drawn here last year as the new SOAD director. Size matters, he adds, but quality is more important. “We want to break away from being considered just a regional arts program” and aim for national attention, Drought says.

He thinks that’s possible because he sees a wealth of talent in the SOAD faculty and students. “They tell you they like the small classes and the great teaching. The atmosphere seems to be that of a real family. They are doing some great things.”

Metals program faculty Linda Darty, Mi-Sook Hur, Robert Ebendorf and Tim Lazure

A faculty with vision

Hang around the Jenkins building and you hear students use admiring tones for faculty members like Linda Darty, a renowned expert on enameling who earned a lifetime achievement award from the Enamelist Society. ECU’s metals program is believed to be the largest program of its kind in the nation.

SOAD students also crowd into lectures by Robert Ebendorf, a widely recognized goldsmith and jeweler who serves as the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Visiting Professor. Ebendorf, whose work has been featured at the Smithsonian, came to campus seven years ago as a distinguished visiting professor and didn’t want to leave. He extended his commitment because of his fondness for ECU and the arts program.

Ebendorf, who taught more than 30 years at universities in Florida, Georgia and New York before coming to Greenville, says many SOAD students come to college already possessing advanced technical skills but many are less well versed in more traditional art forms. And yet the crafts and applied arts often are better avenues to careers, especially in a state such as North Carolina, which has a large arts and crafts industry.

But SOAD wants its students to experience art on a global scale. Perhaps that’s why there’s a buzz surrounding visiting professor Seok Hwa Kim, head of the Department of Art and Design at Dankook University in Korea, who is teaching classes in metals here this year.

The exposure to art on a global scale is an eye-opening experience. “Making these kinds of connections is important and will enhance our reputation,” Drought says.

“The mentoring that the faculty gives to the students is good and is a very important part of their professional overview of education. The mentoring is not just about classes, but it also is about life,” Ebendorf says. “The faculty members are very passionate about what they do.”

Fixing the fine arts building
It was a banner day for the fine arts when East Carolina dedicated the Jenkins Fine Arts Center in 1976. With more than 100,000 square feet of space, Jenkins was big enough to house all the fine arts programs under one roof, a big plus for faculty and students.

Its airy galleries and well-equipped studios nurtured artistic minds, but 30 years of paint splatters and blowtorches have taken their toll. Some parts of Jenkins were in poor repair until improvements were undertaken recently. So far, classrooms and interior hallways have been repainted, seven painting studios have been renovated, computer labs have been upgraded with new furnishings and computers, five “smart” classrooms have been developed, and exterior lighting has been added for night work in the kiln yard.

“We actually created more square footage for students” with this work, says SOAD director Drought. With its literal house now in order, Drought is planning other improvements, including broader recruiting efforts. Up to now, the vast majority of SOAD students came from in-state.

“We’ve not had a significant recruiting effort outside North Carolina, but we will start,” he says. “I don’t think there are many programs out there as comprehensive as ours, but this is a competitive world, and recruiting new students is absolutely essential.”

He also wants to make sure adequate studio space has been secured for both students and their programs as one way to support the newer, growing programs. The school also would like to expand its art collection on public display, including possible exhibitions at the medical campus. It hopes to strengthen its relationship with Greenville’s Emerge Gallery and continue the outreach effort toward young people through the annual Youth Arts Festival.  

Drought knows that bringing some of these plans to reality likely will require adding more space. “We want to lay the groundwork for expanding our facilities, and I think the university is very committed to our program, as shown by our building improvements. But right now, for instance, more students are interested in our graduate programs than we have space for.”


What makes ECU different?

Most people feel a cool sense of beauty in art but at ECU art also can fire the passions. That fact is on vivid display when students in the sculpture program conduct the darkly beautiful Iron Pours. Amid fire and smoke evocative of Vulcan’s Forge, heaps of scrap metal die in flames and are reborn as art objects. The annual Halloween Iron Pour is a spooky rite of passage on campus that kicks off the evening’s merriment.

East Carolina boasts acclaimed faculty in even this most brutish art form, including Professor Carl Billingsley, who brought the artistic iron pour back to the Baltics after the Iron Curtain fell. Professor Hanna Jubran, who created the “Monument to a Century of Flight” installment at Kitty Hawk, leaves art behind annually in Estonia and Israel. Both have won international competitions.

But the faculty never forgets that students one day will have to earn a living. Leland Wallin, a painting professor for the past 15 years, explains that one sure way to avoid becoming a starving artist is to teach by day, preferably on a leafy college campus, and create at night.

“Getting the (undergraduate) art degree is not necessarily the end of the course. They continue to work and also get an advanced degree, or sometimes it is the other way around, and that’s what it is all about. Most BA/BFA students take five years, and if they don’t go on to get an MFA, they often don’t have time to develop maturation, and they can’t teach,” he says.

Art is a “very challenging field” these days, and because of the cost of materials and supplies, a costly field, he says, and being able to teach while pursuing one’s art is beneficial. Having a master’s degree helps an artist get noticed for shows and exhibitions while also helping advance a teaching career.  

Unlike many private art schools and some public programs, ECU does not require prospective students to submit a portfolio for admission, but a portfolio of work is required to pursue advanced courses in one of the studio concentrations.

By the time the student is a senior, a second portfolio review takes place as the student prepares for his or her required “senior show,” in which the student’s work is evaluated by at least two faculty members.  

Opportunities for overseas study are also available. ECU conducts summer arts programs in Finland, Italy, Spain and Estonia and the Baltics. Faculty members have participated in traveling exhibitions in Cologne, Germany, and other international venues.

Drought’s experience with art students in the past confirms that art majors generally are driven to do well.

“Whenever you are really passionate about something—and most artists are—you do really well. A BFA is good for a lot more than it used to be. While it’s not a guarantee for success, it shows you want to be professional at some level.”

Not content to rest on its artistic laurels, East Carolina is pushing forward with a new vision for art and design. Other schools are catching up, Drought says. “A lot of other programs have developed. Five years down the road, we would like more people to know about us. We have great stories to tell. Students will find strong programs and good faculty here.”

Junior SOAD student Sarah Searcy, who came to ECU from the N.C. School of the Arts, is one such story. She’s double majoring in painting and anthropology and hopes to study the relationship between the two in graduate school. “I’m doing things here I never thought I’d be doing. I’m meeting incredible people. It’s been such a wonderful experience,” she says. “I’m sure there will be more ‘aha!’ moments, but it certainly has exceeded my expectations.”