Don Eckelberry: A Personal Profile

By Tony Angell (from Living Bird, Winter 2001)

It was a summer evening on Long Island, in the mid 1960s and I stood on a breezy patio listening to steel drum music mix with the swirl of conversation, raucous laughter, intense discussion and storytelling. I was in the middle of Don and Virginia Eckelberry's annual artists' party that brought together painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and poets to share their passion for birds, in particular, and everything else in general.

Just out of college and an aspiring painter of birds from the Pacific Northwest, I had come with my meager portfolio in hand, unaware that I would be pitched into a cauldron of creative expression the likes of which I had never imagined existed. In short order, I was putting faces to names I had heard of in the field of natural history painting. Roger Peterson, Guy Coheleach, Al Gilbert, Guy Tudor and Arthur Singer had all brought recent work to be discussed and encouraged, along with mine and the work of others. Elsewhere in the Eckelberry studio, an artist, recently returned from an expedition to Costa Rica, shared drawings, field paintings and photographs of tropical birds. Simultaneously, in a patio corner, a discussion was underway comparing the impressionistic techniques of Monet and Degas with those of the animal painters Bruno Liljefors and Carl Rungius. Now and again someone expressed grave concerns over a building commitment to the war in Vietnam. I wandered from one conversation to another filling up like a sponge on ideas and impressions.

From midday until well after midnight the music and dialogues continued. A parade of food — hams, clams, lobster, crab, breads and fruit, was lined up on a buffet and people scooped up a plateful then re-entered the fray. At the center of it all stood Don Eckelberry in a straw hat with a drink in hand and a cigar in the other. Like a ringmaster, he moved through the swirl of activity. He stopped to raise a question of Arthur Singer about his forthcoming book on European birds, and then moved on to engage Roger Peterson in a discussion over the merits of gouache vs. transparent watercolor. I'd hear him reiterate the importance of working directly from nature, like a mantra, and by nightfall we were inside his studio reviewing his collection of drawings developed from his years in of field experience. When the party began to disperse in the early morning of the next day, it had been non-stop feasting and talking. Don Eckelberry was just hitting his stride.

Many of his pronouncements that I heard that first visit have stayed with me. His encouragement to “work directly with one's subject, alive and in the field,” forced me to apply my eye to the world and directly explore what I found. His edict: “It's not what you paint or sculpt, its how you do it,” strengthened my resolve to interpret nature and search for unexplored forms and emotions there. When I think of his statement that, “art is structured emotion and it's not what is seen but what is felt in what is seen that counts,” I'm reminded that whatever has been most original in my work is more the result of exploring my emotions about the subject than it is demonstrating my mastery of technique.

But there was more than sound advice that Eckelberry provided and within a year of that first visit Don had helped me get in touch with Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology and they would later publish some of my watercolors and research in The Living Bird. A few years later he recommended my work for inclusion in the Royal Ontario Museum show “Animals In Art” held in Toronto. Thanks to Don my sculptures became part of a remarkable collection of historical and contemporary artwork from all over the world.

Born in l921, young Eckelberry found nature just out the door in Sebring, Ohio. However, an injury at birth made walking painfully difficult. Only after a series of operations when he was five was he later able to explore the woods. Initially he was pretty much on his own as he prowled the countryside with an air rifle collecting birds of the region. After a year, however, he put down the gun replaced it with a pair of binoculars and a sketchpad and never looked back.

Drawing, painting and keeping a journal of his field observations became an obsession. On clear days in the fall, Don would forego school to observe the migrants. By fifteen, encouraged and financed by his aunts and uncles, he was taking summer art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art, had a one person show of his work (sold several paintings) and was writing a column on birds for the local paper.

It was also around this time that Don was, as he says, “dazzled” by the work of Louis Fuertes, which he discovered in Thornton Burgess' Book of Birds. Until he saw Fuertes' work, he didn't realize it was truly possibly for someone to paint a bird's character and capture its personality. In these paintings Don recognized birds as he knew them to be in the wild, full of life and vitality. He also recognized that here was an artist who was making a living painting the subjects that Don found so captivating. Then and there he decided to become a professional bird painter.

After high school, Don continued with his art classes at the Institute, but was helped more by the thoughtful criticism of his paintings given by his artistically accomplished uncle Viktor Schreckengost, and the Chief Preparator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Arthur B. Fuller. His uncle Vik (who at this writing is well into his nineties and still painting) was someone who gave of his time and as Don says, “magically created form from lines and shading.” Fuller, who had been a friend of Fuertes, reviewed Don’s paintings for their scientific accuracy. These were critical moments in Eckelberry's formative years. This combination of nurturing both the aesthetic and scientific commitment provided him early on with high standards for judging his work and the work of others.

As the l940s began, Don was off to fresh fields for explorations in Florida and then California. Sketching all the way he laid in the foundation for the thousands of direct from nature drawings that would become, as he says, his “Fort Knox” of information. After Florida he headed to California taking a job in an optics factory and looking for new species of birds to sketch and describe. On one of his field trips he met John Baker, then director of The National Audubon. Baker was so impressed with Don’s skills as a field observer and artist that he offered him a job with National Audubon. He took the position and was now in the “bird business,” dividing his time between staff artist at Audubon Magazine in New York City and warden for the Society's various sanctuaries.

He explored the Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana, went to Florida to study the Okeechobee country and then came north to patrol Cape May Point in New Jersey for shooters during the hawk migrations. It was also in the early l940's that Eckelberry was sent to the Singer Tract in northern Louisiana and while there observed and sketched what may well have been the last female ivory-billed woodpecker in North America.

Working at Audubon in New York City, Don struck up a friendship with author/ornithologist Richard Pough and the two soon began a collaboration that produced the Society's three-volume set of books on North American Birds, the first of which was published in l946. From the onset of this endeavor, the effort to paint 1250 separate portraits of birds in color required Don’s full attention and he left Audubon to begin his freelance career as a full-time artist. Also about this time Eckelberry had been courting Virginia Nepodal, a textile artist/designer he had met in art school. They were married at Dick Pough's home and soon found the carriage house to remodel on Long Island that would become their permanent residence.

By the 1950s Eckelberry had, as he says, “painted his way out of North America” and was taking trips, financed by his freelance work, into Mexico, South and Central America, Trinidad and all the islands of the Greater Antilles as well as most of the Windward Islands. On all of these travels Don kept careful journals sketching birds in the margins and keeping careful descriptions of plumage and tissue colors of the species observed. Equally important were his notes on the habitat where his observations were made and the particular behavior of the species seen. Reading through these journals is an extraordinary experience, as Eckelberry's colorful vocabulary and image-filled notes can transport you to the jungles, put you on a dusty village street in Mexico among the people, or place you at the table of a remote research camp savoring the taste of monkey collected for science and cooked for dinner.

The extensive field work in Mexico and Argentina brought him together with Dean Amadon, the Curator of Birds for the American Museum of Natural History. This eminent scientist marveled at Eckelberry's “amazing knowledge of birds” and Don’s dawn to dark work ethic, which kept him occupied observing, sketching and writing up the descriptions of all he saw. Amadon would later seek Don’s artistic skills for the illustration of Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World. Yet another trip to the tropics took Don to the jungle retreat of Alexander Skutch in Costa Rica. Skutch, too, sought Eckelberry's illustration talent for his forthcoming volumes on Central American birds.

By the early 70s, Eckelberry had established a remarkable body of work. He had solely or largely painted the illustrations for seventeen books related to birds and natural history. Along with the three classic Audubon Guides are the three volumes of Life Histories of Central American Birds by Alexander F. Skutch; Birds of the West Indies by James Bond; A Distributional Study of the Birds of British Honduras by Stephen M. Russell and two volumes for Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World by Leslie Brown and Dean Amadon. Along with the books were an equal number of articles written and illustrated by Eckelberry for both the scientific and general audience interested in birds. Somehow, with writing and illustration assignments he found time to create numerous miniature images that would become cherished as part of National Wildlife Federation's annual issue of wildlife stamps.

Eckelberry had largely given up illustration work by the mid 70's and recommended others for assignments when approached to do a job. Now he turned his energies to painting, and found more time for conservation work. Using oil and acrylic, he did large canvas images that allowed him more room to give form to his feelings. Some of these works were published as prints by the Frame House Gallery which also published work by Guy Coheleach, Arthur Singer and Ray Harm. Many of these prints were donated to conservation fundraising efforts. Along with his Frame House cohort, Eckelberry was instrumental in raising more than a quarter of a million dollars, all of which went to the acquisition of additional properties for Corkscrew Swamp.

The conservation effort Don is most proud of is his work to establish the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad. More than any single person, Don is responsible for the preservation and maintenance of this tropical reserve. Initially, he worked with the then owner, Asa Wright, to spread the word to scientists and artists alike of the remarkable tropical natural area existing there. He held painting and field seminars there and recruited other artists to do likewise seeking to expose the area to a wider audience. As the site became more popular however, it was clear that much had to be done to shore up the buildings. Bats had taken up residence near the dining room and assorted reptiles favored the building's hallways. Through energetic appeals, Eckelberry spread the word of what was at stake, held fundraisers and made personal contributions. Before long a financial footing was in place that would restore the facility and secure its preservation. It's safe to say that without Don’s efforts the Asa Wright Nature Center would not exist today.

Don’s accomplishments in science, art and conservation over the years have not gone unnoticed. An Elected Fellow of the American Ornithologist's Union, he also served a term on the Governing Board of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He was one of the first recipients of the Master Wildlife Artist medal presented by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. The Society of Animal Artists presented him with their Award of Merit - one of two such awards given over its thirty-five year history. For his work on behalf of establishing the Asa Wright Nature Center, The Florida Audubon Society recognized him as their “Conservationist of the Year.”

Over the last two decades of his life, Don Eckelberry continued to lead a busy life, although no longer was he able to go into the field or work at the easel. Restricted by illness, he nevertheless continued to share his ideas and insights with others as he maintained communication with artist and scientist friends, old and new, from around the world. On my last visit with Don, we did most of our talking, as is his wont, well after midnight. Poking his finger into the halo of cigar smoke over his head, he punctuated each point he wished to emphasize in our discussion.

Up to the very end of his life (in January 2001), Don was still possessed with the infectious zeal that so impressed me the first time we met nearly thirty five years before. As we talked of Bruno Liljefors, and Francis Lee Jaques and the impact these painters have had on subsequent artists who depict nature, I've wondered if Don appreciated his own impact as a painter, critic and artistic philosopher. Some of the grand old men of American Ornithology recognized his contributions early on. Robert Cushman Murphy, AmaDon’s predecessor as Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, described Don’s collection of paintings for the classic Audubon Guides as a “consummate success.” Ludlow Griscom, founder of Field Ornithology in America, described Don’s work as “superlative”and “one of the rare artists who can capture the bird's personality possessed in life.” Jean Delacour, the great French aviculturist, considered Eckelberry the “best bird artist of the day.”

His fellow artists also appreciate his uncompromising integrity and skill. George McLean of Ontario, Canada, considers Eckelberry's bird illustrations to be “hands down, the most convincing. He said it all with economy and intelligence.“ Larry McQueen, a respected and successful painter of birds, feels that “Don’s portraits will always be some of the greatest ever achieved. He pioneered relating birds to their environment - all in one well-balanced composition.” Roger Peterson, Don’s long-time friend, said simply that “Don Eckelberry reigns supreme … the best mastery of bird depiction of any of his peers.”

Don’s legacy will surely be, in large part, his paintings, drawings and field journals on birds. The best of them radiate with what he so much admired in Fuertes, the essence of the subject portrayed. They convey life, and while information is conveyed, it is the spirit in the painting that brings the observer together with nature in a moment of joy and exhilaration. And beyond the paintings is his gift that so many have received - a helping hand of experience and skill so that others might advance their efforts.

Tony Angell Seattle, WA Oct. 2000