Devin Burton's artistic tribute to singer-composer Tom Waits creates a persona of the talented, eccentric singer and songwriter as fascinating as Waits himself.

Burton's three-dimensional work depicts three stages of Waits, all of them stuffed within a guitar case. It looks great on his smartphone and sadly, nowhere else.

A fire destroyed Mead Hall's art cottage on the Aiken Prep campus early on Friday morning – destroying the art pieces of Burton and many other students, along with the valued equipment of teacher Kathy Nowlin.

All the Advanced Placement art students have been working on portfolios, in the arts cottage, that they could have submitted to colleges.

“Most of my stuff is from last year and some the year before that,” said Burton, a senior. “This is like losing a room in your house.”

Until the 1990s, the building served as a residence for former headmasters, including the popular educator, Bob Harrington. Kindergarten classes then were held there. When Aiken Prep merged with Mead Hall in 2012, the campus suddenly had room for an ever-growing art program. Nowlin moved from the smaller cottage to a larger building, which had plenty of room for a studio.

Over 12 years at the school, Nowlin said, her students have been exceptional and then “Cornell University saw their work and said it was the some of the finest work they've seen. I didn't expect it. But our kids push each other and have to push their work if they want to get some acclaim. ... They have to show what they know.”

The students were devastated on Friday morning when they arrived on campus, said Nowlin, who shared her own distress with them. Some had not actually seen the remains of the cottage until they ventured there shortly after 2 p.m. They encountered the remains not only of a building, but the ashes of a part of themselves in which they had committed to fulfill their imaginations.

Yet by then, a sense of pragmatism seemed to have emerged. As Burton, Ella Morton and Jonathan Rodgers said, they still had portfolios to do.

“There's no time,” Burton said. “We have to move on.”

Ironically, the original headmaster's residence burned down in the early '50s. Another home was built on the Aiken Prep campus, and in 1971, the Harrington family moved in. At that time, the school didn't go beyond ninth grade, and Bob's son, Rob Harrington, then 14, soon left to continue his education, but would return during holidays and every summer.

He and some of his own students visited the rubble of his one-time home on Friday, where they found the AP students – among them Rob's son, Jake.

The art students slowly made their way around the studio. They spotted an ornament from the Christmas tree they had made, as well as the tables they had used. A student's mug could be seen, as well as fragments of Julian Wilson's work.

Moments later, Ella and Jake clutched two pieces of paper charred at the edges – agreeing suddenly on finding an art project for them.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.