The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The Eric Show empowers young artists, honors local legacy

Matt Stepp
Banner “The Eric Show” hangs at the Illini Union gallery during the opening reception on Mar. 6.

Lava dragons, oil pastel lily pads, a flower-painted tailgate, cardboard sculptures and Garfield ceramics took center stage at The Eric Show in the Illini Union gallery on Saturday.

Every year, high school teachers from Illinois drop off their students’ art pieces at 40 North | 88 West — an organization representing the art community in Champaign County — for submission to The Eric Show.

The Eric Show is an annual juried high school art competition where students showcase their pieces for all of Champaign-Urbana. It began in 2010 in memory of Eric Steffenson, an award-winning high school artist.

Kelly White, executive director of 40 North | 88 West, described Eric’s works as being on a different level.

“I was an art kid in high school, and I was not making the kind of art that he was making,” White said. “It was very advanced, and so he had also won a lot of awards at different shows.”

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Steffenson won several awards for his artwork and had worked for University art professor and sculptor Rob Fisher. After graduating from Urbana High School a semester early, he planned to major in art at the University.

In the summer of 1970, Steffenson was killed by a drunk driver at the corner of Race and Michigan streets in Urbana. Years later, Steffenson’s father, Dale, approached 40 North | 88 West and proposed to honor Eric’s legacy by curating an art show featuring high school students’ works.

“I think that’s why Dale felt this would be a great way to honor him because this is what really inspired and validated Eric when he would put things in shows and be able to go see his work,” White said. “And so (Dale) thought, ‘At least I could do that to inspire all the young artists.’”

Fifteen years later, The Eric Show exhibited around 200 art pieces from 15 high schools at the Illini Union Art Gallery.

According to White, this gallery might have been the first time students showcased their work to strangers and other artists.

“Every year, I love when I see the students look around, and when they see their (art) … you can just read their faces,” White said. “There’s just an excitement level (when) they see it on display and then they get to go take their picture with it, or they show it.”

During this year’s exhibit, the Illini Union’s walls were covered with mounted canvases, and the crowded room buzzed with friends and family who traveled to see the students’ work.

Among them was Lois Meerdink from Mahomet, Illinois, who came to see her granddaughter’s piece. Eva Meerdink, a student at Mahomet-Seymour High School, crafted an egg carton sculpture of a chicken, featuring layers of gray and green carton feathers that displayed nutrition facts.

“My granddaughter loves to tend to the chickens, feeding them and getting eggs and so forth,” Meerdink said. “So that was probably her inspiration. She’s always doing sketches of different things — whether it’s trees or birds, and she loves horse riding. So, I guess I’m not surprised that she came up with this creation.”

The gallery showcased a diverse array of multimedia art pieces from sketches, paintings, ceramics and cardboard sculptures. There were also unexpected mediums, according to White.

Gwen Happ from Heritage High School used a red tailgate from her Ford truck as a canvas. She painted hummingbirds and monarch butterflies hovering over a garden of yellow and orange flowers made with acrylic paint. Her piece won third place at The Eric Show.

White also praised a piece by Kevin Mikulich from Monticello High School. He curated a portrait using oil paint on plexiglass — a unique and challenging nontraditional medium. 

“I haven’t quite seen that before; it’s a portrait,” White said. “The face is painted, but then the rest is left just clear plexiglass. Plexiglass is kind of a tough one to paint on because it’s a very slick surface. It doesn’t have the tooth like a canvas would and so on, but it’s beautifully done.”

Canvases with “teeth” refer to a rough or textured surface, which makes them easier to paint on.

Mikulich’s plexiglass piece featured a face with brown hair and strokes of red hues on its cheeks and was illuminated with subtle lighting. The piece earned the Best in Show title.

Another highlight of the show was Marissa Altaner’s “Lava Monster” from Champaign Central High School, which was a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy that came to life with 3D elements.

Altaner’s piece was a mixed-media diorama of a sculpted molten rock dragon with light shining out of its eyes and horn. A green troll with red hair next to a small gray chimera looked up at the dragon with its mouth open.

Alex Olson from Mahomet-Seymour High School created an oil pastel piece that featured a lily pad pond with a mixture of blue and bright green lily pads that blend with the dark and bright blues of the pond.

Olson’s untitled work, which earned first place, was inspired by the pond in her grandparent’s backyard that had lily pads.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t appreciate just the beauty of the things around them, even if it may be something simple as a rock on the side of the road like it has its own story and its own life,” Olson said. “I feel like it’s very important to look at the things that might not be as beautiful in everybody’s eyes.”

Although The Eric Show is an art competition, Farwah Tariq, a graphic design teacher at Centennial High School, sees the show as an accessible gallery that unites the community.

“I love that it’s a community event where everybody can get together and see work that’s more local,” Tariq said. “I also really like that it’s accessible and that it is not necessarily, like, a competition show like the Central Regional Exhibition. It’s less about ‘I’m trying to win’ and more about ‘I just want to show my work,’ and I love that. The whole point of The Eric Show is to inspire you.”


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About the Contributor
Matt Stepp
Matt Stepp, Visual Director
Hey there! I’m Matt, I’m currently a first-year majoring in Graphic Design, with a minor in media. I started here at the Daily Illini in the fall of 2023 as a staff photographer, and now serve as the Visual Director for the Daily Illini. I have always loved photography, you will probably see me around campus shooting sports and other events. I’m also an artist and love watercolor painting and illustration. If you’re a swimmer or enjoy the pool, you may see me at the ARC or CRCE working as a lifeguard as well, I’m never away from a pool for too long!
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