2010-10-13 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

An art era ended in Babylon. The estate sale of the contents of the carriage house owned by the Eckelberrys took place last Saturday. Don R. Eckelberry (1921-2001) was a renowned wildlife illustrator, internationally known ornithologist, conservationist, and mentor to artists and naturalists around the globe; in essence, a modern day John J. Audubon. Since 1979 I’ve lived a stone’s throw away from their gracious home, and hadn’t a clue about its astounding owners until last autumn when his widow Virginia Eckelberry, a textile designer, died at age 96.

With due respect, the Eckelberrys had many dear friends nearby who could recount their contributions much better than anything I write; yet as an outsider, my tiny finds within their historic home offer a snapshot at their legacy. Thehuge studio in the carriage house contained a vast library, and inside certain volumes are personal mementos- each expressing gratitude from the many persons whose lives they touched. The internet is full of testimonials to his tutelage. As Herb Raffaele, one protégée, wrote: “Once Don Eckelberry took me through his studio and I thought I had gone to heaven!”

Pointer drawing found in the Eckelberry studio. Pointer drawing found in the Eckelberry studio. The prolific illustrator Eckelberry grew up in Ohio. As a teen he formed a bird club and wrote nature columns for two newspapers. He attended Cleveland Art Institute where he met his future wife who was his freshman design instructor. During the 1940s, he was a staff artist for the National Audubon Society, but later worked as a freelancer. His drawings are in many scientific articles plus 17 books including A Field Guide to the Birds of the Birds of the West Indies collaborating with his colleagues James Bond, Arthur B. Singer and Roger T. Peterson (the inventor of the modern field guide). TheNational Wildlife Federation turned his miniature images into wildlife stamps.

Eckelberry traveled extensively, documenting avian species throughout North, South and Central America. He preferred to work directly from the live bird in the field, thus each painting depicted the spirit and life breath of the subject within its habitat. Expeditions sparked conservation efforts. His fundraising secured additions to the Florida Corkscrew Swamp. In 1967, Eckelberry helped establish the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, setting aside 1,500 acres as a tropical preserve and a non-profit living laboratory for ecotourism and research.

Back home, each summer the couple would host an annual gala of painters, sculptors, scientists and poets who shared their passion for birds and art. The steel drum music would drift over Babylon. Upon Mrs. Eckelberry’s passing, the original artwork was donated to the Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin while the Don and Virginia Eckelberry Endowment at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia perpetuates the couple’s life long commitment to helping others pursue careers in animal art.

How could I not know who lived there? I walked my dogs by the magnificent house on Woodsome for decades, always wondering about its inhabitants. The residence has a mysterious walled courtyard. All I knew was that it was part of the Foster property. Someone told me that a famous greeting card artist lived there, which is wrong. Last year, I eyed the ivy covered stucco when Edgar Afghan Poe needed a backdrop in his Dracula cape for the rescue calendar, although I didn’t dare pose him there.

Like many locals, I was curious when the realty held the open house, but the history surpassed my wildest dreams. Now the house has sold. And if I weren’t walking my dogs, I wouldn’t have seen the small sign for the estate sale. And if I weren’t in a rush to get to the shelter, I would have spent the day going through the books. Hence, I am fortunate to own a few treasures:

• Prints: I arrived late. There were still prints by various artists in the studio. Some were signed or initialed in pencil by Don R. Eckelberry. I purchased his last signed one. I heard that earlier students were overcome with joy because they were able to buy his art supplies. There remained 1950s notebooks with pressed fauna from Central America. Since I am always foraging for Westminster clues, I took an 1892 field dog print with an unfamiliar signature which turned out to be Bruno Liljefors, his influential predecessor.

•Books: I spied a nature art book completely in Hebrew. Inside was a letter dated 1978 from the Holy Land Conservation Fund explaining the book was dedicated to the Israeli soldiers killed in combat and thanking Eckelberry for “his significant support.” The letterhead lists Arthur Godrey, Cleveland Amory and Tony Curtis (who died last week) among the committee. I am not sure if the drawings are Eckelberry’s because they are signed in Hebrew. An inscribed bulb book, illustrated by Judy Singer, wife of his artist friend above had newspaper clippings tucked within describing a Japanese watercolorist indebted to Eckelberry. In 1984, this artist’s botanical drawings were about to become 20 cent US postage stamps.

• Pets: A longtime artist friend was monitoring the sale. He told me that Don and Virginia weren’t dog people, but did own cats, so I set aside an Egyptian cat statue. Seconds later the orange tabby who I’ve seen lounging across the street waltzed through the front door. I found a Beagle drawing that Eckelberry was enlarging for a magazine; next, a similar enlargement of a Pointer, so reminiscent of Westminster’s Sensation (buried right here in Babylon) rose to the top of the pile. My K-9 kismet was complete. Take a peek. I may be the only person ever ecstatic about displaying an Eckelberry dog rather than bird drawing.

This week’s poster pets at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon are two sad surrenders. “Hemi” #20304 a declawed mush of a cat lost his home due to a foreclosure in June, whereas sweet “Gretchen” #93957 a Miniature Schnauzer was turned in by a family member. She is about 6 years old and 100% love. Other declawed cats: “Snuggle” & “Cinnamon”, also friendly.

Male: Clumber Spaniel mix #93531; “Blue” #93487-Retriever mix; small Wheaten type #93592; white Beagle mix #93555.

Female: “Asia, Lydia, Brownie” from the patient Pit collection.

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