Ernest G. Welch: Developing Impact in Art and Design

Welch gift to GSU develops greater impact 

Bequest of centenarian photography student supports new GSU art and design initiatives  

Barely two years since 103-year-old photography student Ernest G. Welch passed away, his multimillion dollar bequest is developing new art and design perspectives for Georgia State University faculty and students.

The academic and artistic legacy of Welch was celebrated on Feb. 8 in a program of speeches and studio demonstrations called Ernest Day. The bequest from Welch, who died in late 2009, left approximately $4 million to GSU.

GSU President Mark P. Becker and College of Arts and Sciences Dean William J. Long kicked off a program dedicated to highlighting the ongoing legacy of the lifelong learner whose philanthropy led to the naming of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.

In attendance were Welch’s cousins – Mary Emma Welch McConaughey (Ph.D., 1998), Merrilyn Welch Eastham and Clara Welch Howell, all of the Atlanta area.

“Congratulations to all the students who benefit now from Ernest Welch’s generosity,” Becker told a crowd gathered at the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall. “You are carrying forward the legacy of a student who pursued his passion, and let his passion be his legacy.”

That legacy includes the inaugural Welch Symposium, highlighted by a juried art exhibition scheduled for late summer and a conference in December expected to draw professional scholars as well as undergraduate and graduate scholars well beyond the fields of art and design.

Drawing from disciplines at GSU as varied as anthropology, modern languages and gerontology, the symposium will explore the subject of death and the ways humans assign meaning to it. Classes across disciplines are currently devoted to this subject and are expected to produce papers, works of art and other scholarly and creative responses to the subject of death.

“Mr. Welch was a lifelong learner who valued curiosity and appreciated the various viewpoints that each scholar and artist brought to an issue,” said GSU Assistant Art Professor John R. Decker, who is organizing the Welch Symposium. “Ernest believed in the power of community; the interdisciplinary nature of this symposium seeks to bring together the larger scholarly and artistic community of GSU to explore one of life’s great mysteries.”

The Welch funds will also support the school’s first Welch Artist-in-Residence. Ayanah Moor of Carnegie Mellon University will assume that role in spring 2013.

More funding impact can be seen in the work of Welch Graduate Fellows Marc Errol in ceramics and Kojo Griffin in drawing, painting and printmaking. Welch Faculty Research Grant recipients include Nancy Floyd in photography and Craig Drennen in drawing, painting and printmaking.

“It was a tremendous act of generosity, confidence and faith that he created opportunities for people he had not even met yet,” said Drennen, who never met Welch. “I hope to do Ernest proud.”

Welch’s life and gift were further memorialized by a bronze plaque with his likeness that will hang in the school’s office. The plaque, funded by art student clubs, was made by GSU sculpture alumnus Matthew Sigmon (M.F.A., 2009).

“On behalf of all the students at the Welch school, I present this as a small token of our thanks and respect for all the creative passion and generosity that Ernest represents to all of us,” said Rachel Chamberlain, president of the Art Student Union.

The speakers and artists at Ernest Day revived Welch’s memory as a fastidious, dedicated learner who graduated from GSU at age 93 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography. In 2002, at age 96, he studied digital photography at GSU.

All four former Welch School directors were in attendance, including John McWilliams (1996-2002) and Larry Walker (1983-1994).

Current Welch School director Cheryl Goldsleger recalled Welch from her oil painting class, where students pair up to construct stretchers to build canvases from 2” x 2” pieces of wood.

“He enjoyed and enriched himself here, and his contributions to our community showed how very much he cared for the students and wanted what was going on to continue,” she said.

Former director Ralph Gilbert added, “He gave us the gift of opportunity and left us with a responsibility to fulfill that opportunity and make something great of the school.

“It’s a heavy responsibility, and I hope to just suggest that Ernest is a person worth every bit of effort to fulfill his vision and convert every bit of his dream to excellence. I think we’ve made a great start, and have many more years to perfect it.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424