Starving Artists: 34 Years of Outer Banks Art

 In Local Art Scene

The windswept shores of the Outer Banks have always been a haven for artists, musicians, and storytellers – a place where creative minds gather to be inspired by nature and to immerse themselves in our art-centric community. But among the many wonderful art shows and events we enjoy on the island, there is none quite like the Starving Artists annual Christmas party.

Born in a local artist’s home in the mid-1980s, Starving Artists brings together more than 20 well-known and up-and-coming Outer Banks artists for an evening of great art and great food prior to the holidays.

“It’s a celebration of the beautiful community that we live in,” says Ellen Berg, who hosted the gathering for more than 30 years.

The tradition began with Ellen and her husband Victor Berg, who are Outer Banks bird carvers that carve and hand-paint wooden birds on driftwood bases. In the ‘80s, there were no retail shops open on the Outer Banks during the holiday season, so friends would often ask the Bergs if they could stop by to have a look at their artwork and consider giving it as a gift.

Ellen would set up art in a spare bedroom at her home in Colington for friends to peruse. Then one year when about 10 people all came by on the same day to check out the artwork, she realized that it would be more fun to host a party.

“Back then, there was really nothing to do in the wintertime,” she says. “Labor Day went through, and there was nobody on the beach. That was before Ocean Sands was built, before any of Corolla had been developed. And we were bored.”

“The first year we had the party,” she explains, “I had a couple of artists say, ‘Can I come and put my stuff up?’ It became more and more of an event, and then it just kept growing and growing.”

Soon enough, the Bergs had now well-known Outer Banks artists like Marcia Kline and Rob Snyder participating in the invitation-only gathering. Paintings, pottery, soaps, jewelry, and photographs covered every wall and surface in their home – competing for space only with the exceptional array of food that ranged from wild game to homemade Christmas desserts. Best of all, most of the art was discounted between 25 and 50 percent for the holidays.

In a time before cellphones and Facebook, Starving Artists was a word-of-mouth kind of party. But word-of-mouth quickly spread, and by the early 2000s, there were 200 to 300 people attending each year and a generation of younger artists reaching out to Ellen to see if they could join in on the quirky home event.

“I would go in there and see all of these great artists, and it was really encouraging,” says Dawn Moraga, the face of Red Dawn Designs. “To be invited, you felt like you were a part of something unique.”

“It was fun,” adds Ellen. “We’re really blessed to have quite an artistic community on the beach. For such a small area, there’s an awful lot of artists who live down here. I have many fond memories.”

Over the years, the party became a huge production. The artwork normally covering the walls inside the Bergs’ house (there is a lot of it) had to be taken down and stored in preparation for the party. It was to be replaced with art for sale. Ellen spent days organizing the house and prepping the menu that came to include two deep-fried turkeys.

The Bergs’ 1,250-square-foot home in Kitty Hawk, which they moved into from the Colington house, was too small for the gathering. And after 30 years, Ellen decided it was time to pass on the responsibility to one of the younger participating artists, and Moraga stepped up.

“I like the sense of Outer Banks history being continued,” says Moraga, whose impressionistic surf-scapes and modern abstract emotional paintings have been part of the Starving Artists party for years. “There are a lot of changes that have happened over the past 20 years here, but it’s the Outer Banks home vibe that really makes this place unique – and also the small-town feel. That’s what people crave.”

Moraga hosted Starving Artists at her home in Kitty Hawk for two years, and then last year, just when the show needed to grow a little more, Nate Neal at Cozy Kitchens offered his expansive showroom as a venue. Elegant but homey, the space felt like a natural stepping stone in the evolution of Starving Artists.

By Ellen’s guess, between 500 and 600 people attended the 2018 party at Cozy Kitchens, filling the business’s parking lot and parking all up and down Kitty Hawk Road.

“Vic and I looked at each other and said, ‘Our baby has grown up,’” says Ellen.

With additional space in the new venue, Moraga made an effort to include several up-and-coming artists in the show along with longtime favorites, saying, “This is one of those shows that people fight to get into.”

Along with the Bergs and Moraga, artists that have participated in recent years have included Carolina Coto Art, Meg Rubino of Yellow Sol Studio, Katie Slater Photography, Margaret Miller of Low Tide Jewels, and so many other talented individuals. And last year’s event also saw the addition of Camp Cocktail to serve up beer, wine, and innovative cocktails alongside the ever-growing spread of holiday cuisine.

“The show preserves some of the Outer Banks’ first artists and continues to spur on a new generation,” says Moraga. “My biggest goal in the Outer Banks community is to let young artists feel welcome, to have a place and the ability for someone who is labeled as different as an artist to be able to gather with other like-minded weirdos.”

At Starving Artists, Ellen and Moraga have accomplished exactly that, and Moraga says, “I don’t see why it should ever stop.”

The Starving Artists Annual Christmas Party will be held on December 14 this year from 4 to 9:30 p.m. at Cozy Kitchens in Kitty Hawk. ♦

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