After 60 years of dormancy, the old Winterville High School has been transformed into the charming Winterville Center for Community & Culture, marking a tremendous turning point in the City of Winterville’s development. Built in 1918, with its final graduating class celebrating through the doors in 1956, the former school building slowly deteriorated over the decades as the roof leaked, windows were broken and mold took up residence. Through years of hard work, the site has been brought back to life as a regional enrichment center dedicated to cultural arts and educational activities.
Plans to refurbish the vacant building were approved by the city council during the last year of late Mayor Jim Mercer’s administration. After a four-year renovation process and major setbacks due to the contracted construction company failing to meet deadlines, the center was finally completed in December 2015 during the reign of former Mayor Emily Eisenman, whose husband Jack was then hired as its executive director.
“In June 2009, the Clarke County School Board sold the old Winterville High School building to the city of Winterville for $1,” says Jack Eisenman. “The last students had attended in 1956. Needless to say, the building had fallen into disrepair over the years.”
The renovation project cost a total of $1.3 million, with major funding contributed through a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Community Affairs—on the promise of prioritizing seniors’ interests and needs—and the remainder sourced through sales tax dollars reserved specifically for public construction projects in the county. The center intends to cover its operational expenses through class fees, grants, rental fees for parties and meetings and sponsorships from businesses and individuals.
The project leaders’ dedication to seeing their vision through to fruition has not gone unnoticed. The center has been nominated for a 2016 Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation Preservation Award in the category of “Outstanding Rehabilitation” for this year’s 47th annual Preservation Awards Ceremony, which will be held on Monday, June 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Morton Theatre and followed by a reception at Ted’s Most Best.
“Our goal is to be a catalyst for artistic, cultural, intellectual and physical enrichment for adults of all ages,” says Eisenman.
The project was originally envisioned as a senior center that would be staffed and operated full-time by the Athens Community Council on Aging, but the ACCA had to redirect resources after significant budget cuts. The senior-centric concept quickly evolved into one that aims to provide programming for all ages of adults. A diverse array of course offerings has already been set in motion—physical activities like tai chi, square dancing and pilates; art classes in watercolor, acrylics and graphite; and educational lectures on CPR and blood pressure screenings, vaccinations and raised-bed gardening.
In addition to a demonstration kitchen perfect for cooking classes, spacious and well-lit classrooms, and a dining and activity room complete with a ceiling projector for films or presentations, the center’s renovations include a rotating art exhibition within the main hall. These two-month-long exhibitions, which will be organized by the newly-established Winterville Arts Council, will vary in theme, media and artists throughout the year.
The inaugural exhibition, which opened to the public on Thursday, Apr. 15, is a perfect introduction to 13 visual artists who live in or nearby Winterville. The group show was curated by Jimmy Straehla, who is better known to many as “Cap Man” for the colorful bottle cap-covered truck he drives all over town, and his folksy paintings and assemblages that repurpose discarded wood. In this show, he offers a simple daisy framed by pieces of scrap wood, which hangs beside one of his iconic chickens painted onto a window shutter.
This emphasis on found materials is echoed in the two assemblages contributed by musician Jim White, one of which is an unusual face created out of a wreath, decorative birds, fake eggs and giant wooden utensils. Similarly, Tex Crawford’s sculptural work, “Patriotik Memento,” is a hodgepodge of scrap metal, wood and rope painted red, white and blue.
Terry Rowlett, who assisted in the installation of the exhibition, displays one of his neo-iconic oil paintings, which are often modeled after people the artist has met in real life. Madison Binkley, who studied art education at UGA and plans to lead classes at the center, lends two large-scale paintings with colorful, loosely flowing patterns. Peter Loose, easily identified by his polka-dotted paintings of animals and the owner of another eye-catching art car, painted two egrets and a dragonfly beneath a bright sun.
The sun rays are reminiscent of the marigold featured on this week’s cover of Flagpole, which was painted by Cameron Bliss and has been recently installed in the nearby community garden. Bliss, who is the wife of current Winterville Mayor Dodd Ferrelle, contributes three expressive portraits to the center’s exhibition, all of which incorporate her signature influence of pointillism and patterns to varying degrees. The artist, who graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, will have a solo exhibition of works on view at the Farmington Depot Gallery Friday, May 20–Thursday, June 30, with a reception on Friday, May 27.
Two prints by Smokey Road Press owner Margot Ecke and the small etchings of a bird, cat, spinning pinwheels and Buddha by Susan Clay are all simple images that offer deep joys. The digitally altered photographs of botanicals by Van Bellville complement the vibrant garden and beekeeping shots captured by Jen Wolf, which stand in juxtaposition to Steve Milsap’s sepia-toned rural landscapes. And don’t forget to look down near the floorboards, or else you might miss the three stone faces carved by Mike Jones that are staring back up at you.
This fall, the center intends to expand art exhibitions from its 100-foot hallway into the classrooms, allowing for larger or concurrently held shows. On Saturday, Sept. 10, the center will host a 5K race as a fundraising project, and by January Eisenman hopes to expand its lecture series into a weekly event.
“In the short run, we will be continuing our effort to provide quality enrichment courses, activities and events for adults in Clarke and surrounding counties,” says Eisenmann. “Long-term, we envision the center providing regular intergenerational programming. I can see grandparents, parents and children coming to the Center on any given evening and there being a class for everyone in the family.”
In conjunction with the annual Marigold Festival on Saturday, May 21 at Pittard Park, the Winterville Center will host an inaugural Coffee House from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Guests can tour the facility while enjoying coffee, tea, lemonade and baked goods. In addition to the entertainment offered on the festival’s outdoor stages, the center will host its own lineup with a square dancing demonstration at 11 a.m. followed by a different musical act at the top of every hour: David LoCoco & Co., Spontaneous Denial, Clinton Brothers, Gary Grossman and Repent at Leisure. A shuttle train called the Marigold Express will offer free rides between Pittard Park and the center throughout the day.
The Winterville Center is located at 371 N. Church St. and will be open for visitation every Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., with additional programming hosted after-hours. Courses and events are updated on cityofwinterville.com, and artists or community members who are interested in leading programs are encouraged to pitch their ideas by calling 706-742-0823 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.