About the Don and Virginia Eckelberry Endowment

The Don Richard Eckelberry Endowment by Martha Hill

Nature is an endless source of inspiration: There is simply no substitute for watching a subject behave in its native surroundings. Yet it is surprising how few artists today actually work in the field. Many prefer the safe, controllable environment of the studio. The heavy reliance on photos as primary source material by today's artists has, in many cases, resulted in not only a homogeneity of style and a slavishness to detail, but in a finished product devoid of the feeling or emotion that characterizes the best artwork.

Couple this with the market-driven force of only painting subjects that will sell, i.e. wolves, bears, cats, raptors, all politely posed, and what you end up with is an uninspired body of work that conveys none of the excitement of encounter, no sense of individual personality or style, neither of the artist, nor of the animal.

The idea for creating the Don Richard Eckelberry Endowment sprang from a desire to encourage artists to go back to nature as their source of inspiration, something Eckelberry has always encouraged younger artists to do. The goal is to provide an annual grant to a deserving candidate to put him or her into the field for an extended period of time.

The Endowment also seemed an appropriate way to honor Eckelberry the man who, during his career, possessed consummate skills as an ornithologist, field naturalist and artist; his paintings of North American birds have been a benchmark for others to follow. His broad knowledge of the whole field of ornithological illustration, past and present, has made him a mentor to scores of bird artists, young and old.

Yet, in many cases, field work is prohibitively expensive for a younger artist, and thus a fundamental source of learning and inspiration is out of reach. Through the Endowment, painters, sculptors, printmakers and other artists will be supported in their efforts to better acquaint themselves with the natural world.

Before the advent of photography, artists traditionally accompanied expeditions to record the landscape of newly discovered territories, and sometimes new species of wildlife. Their work was an important source of information (and public relations), educating the audience back home about the wonders of places they might never see. We have lost this personal and passionate touch of recording and interpreting as the artist has been increasingly replaced by the dispassionate camera.

Do we need the artist's voice at all, if there is already such a wealth of superb photographic imagery around? For one unique reason —the camera records what it sees, but does not interpret. The artist, however, is free to strengthen, emphasize, select out the important elements, rearrange— all to create a statement having the imprint of his intellect and enthusiasm, as well as his craft. This has the ability to resonate for centuries to come.

Because Don Eckelberry's work embodies an ideal fusion of art and science, it was natural that The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia should become interested in acting as the Endowment's sponsor. The Academy is able to provide a number of opportunities for science to nurture art, and vice versa.

An exciting prospect for a young artist, for example, could be the opportunity to accompany one of the Academy's ornithological expeditions to Ecuador, Manchuria or some other far-flung place that would otherwise be, both logistically and financially, out of reach. Working alongside scientists who are mistnetting or banding birds in their actual habitats would provide a chance for close-up sketches and detail hard to match any other way. In addition, the Academy's world-renowned specimen collection can provide study skins, while its museum periodically hosts exhibitions of nature-related artwork —another source of inspiration.

Another crucial component of the Eckelberry Endowment is its mentoring program, in which established artists and scientists can offer counsel and assistance to these artists as their careers develop. Eckelberry grants could make possible visits to mentors for valuable instruction and critical feedback, or allow extended periods in the field to study on his/her own. A detailed investigation of a new area might be a turning point in a young artists's career. Someone interested in tropical birds might profitably spend several months at the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, an institution which Eckelberry helped to found, and where he himself did field work.

Increasingly, as wilderness and wildlife disappear, we lose precious opportunities to experience them for ourselves. For that reason, an artist's work may take on added significance -- in some cases, it may be the only thing left that will resonate with future generations. One thinks of Eckelberry's chance as a young artist in the early 40s to study what was probably North America's last Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

For that reason, we need eloquent spokespersons for achieving this goal, verbal as well as visual. The artist has always been looked to as a “voice” of his times. But it won't have much power if it isn't passionate, personal, and skillful. For this voice to develop, personal involvement with the wild subject matter is imperative.

As the American lawyer, Louis Nizer, observed years ago: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” The way to put “heart” into art is to provide firsthand experience with the subject matter. The Eckelberry Endowment hopes to provide young artists with the groundwork to do just that.