Almost 43 years ago, a drunken college student blew a stop sign and struck another vehicle in the intersection, killing the young man behind the wheel. That young man was Eric Steffensen. Eric had just graduated high school and had plans to attend the University to study art, aspiring to be a sculptor. He had been on the University’s club hockey team and was working with a sculptor in the art program before even beginning his first semester of college.
“That spring that he died just sort of blew my whole mind,” said Dale Steffensen, his father.
In honor of Eric’s death and his talent as a young artist, Dale and his wife Peg began thinking about starting an art show that would be dedicated to excellence in art by high school students, and as a memorial for their deceased son. The exhibit and annual event would appropriately and simply be named “The Eric Show.”
“We wanted to start a show for students. And we did, with a whole lot of help,” Dale said. Peg was only on her second date with Dale when the accident occurred. Affected by the loss, her and Dale’s love continued, and they soon married. They remained strong throughout the heartbreak and eventually were struck with the idea of beginning this renowned showcase.
In 2010, the plan came into action when the couple decided to start a small art show with the work from local and regional high school students. They ventured to the Cinema Gallery in Urbana and spoke with the owner, Carolyn Baxley. From there, she guided them to the Champaign County Arts Council — 40 North 88 West — where they got in touch with the board and began planning their tribute to Eric.
“We always wanted to do something that would make us feel better and would be in remembrance of him,” Peg said. “We thought the art show would be a good idea, and actually, it’s been a wonderful idea.”
Kelly White, executive director of 40 North and coordinator for “The Eric Show,” has contributed a great deal in organizing and running the art show. Although she was never able to personally meet Eric, she said she feels like she has been able to get to know him on some level through his artwork.
“The maturity and depth of his work astounds me,” White said. Art is her main role in life, she said, as she teaches it, practices it and advocates it each and every day. She is more than thankful for her opportunity to work with this charming and devoted couple. “I feel so fortunate to have worked with Dale and Peg, and they have provided me with one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”
Reflecting on all of the good that came out of the show, Peg added, “It was wonderful for the schools, too.”
One of the most exciting reports she has heard involved the interest of the high school students who longed to have their work displayed in the gallery. “The kids now come into the school in the fall and go to the art teacher and ask, ‘Is there going to be an Eric Show?’”
The students whose art is displayed are juried prior to being appraised by a committee of judges at the show, who then award the students with monetary prizes. In addition to viewers on campus and from the high schools that the art comes from, other visitors come to explore and cherish the work done by these young artists.
“We found out last year that the students who have been in the show or who have won prizes come back just for the opening,” Peg said. “They have taken the weekend off to come back to see the show. This makes us very happy.”
Dale emphasized that in order to get into creating such a successful show, “You have to be big enough to get it started.” The first year, three schools showcased the art of high school students in the Champaign-Urbana area. After three successful years of “The Eric Show,” the couple was able to attract artists from 10 high schools in 2012, making tremendous progress in a short period of time by expanding outside of Champaign county.
Although the design and management has not been entirely altered from the first year of the gallery, a major change the show encountered was its transition from Indi Go Artist Co-op to the Illini Union gallery. Reminiscing on the first year at Indi Go, Peg joyfully recalled, “The first time was at Indi Go, and that was really fun because we could have a real party .. with drinks. On campus, you have to have fruit punch.”
Many of Eric’s pieces were given to friends or have been saved by his sister, but every year the show features one of his pieces. The Steffensens also have displayed their own exhibit of Eric’s paintings and pieces around their home, along with other art they have collected while traveling around the world.
The showcase stays up for approximately three weeks, with its award night on March 8, followed by a party to celebrate the young artists. The northwest gallery on the main floor of Illini Union will be displaying over 100 art fixtures and pieces of mixed medias.
“We wanted to do something that made us happy,” Peg said. They accomplished this and more by spreading and recognizing the talented and passionate young artists in Champaign County, with hopes to expand as “The Eric Show” continues on.
“Every year, I always look around at all the outstanding artwork and I think of him,” White said. “Through the inspiration of his dedication and talent, he continues to profoundly impact this community by giving these emerging artists a voice.”