Five Thousand and Counting

By: Jane Weinke, curator of collections/registrar on January 15th, 2014

5,450 . . . 5,451 . . . 5,452 . . . slowly, sheet-by-sheet, I am documenting a vast collection of pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, and ink drawings. The artist, Don Richard Eckelberry, considered this

resource his “Fort Knox.” * These sketches and composition drawings – many including color and field notes – were completed over several decades. They depict birds from California to New York and Trinidad and Tobago to Greenland including living, endangered, and extinct species. The volume of work is so extensive it filled three drawers in a metal file cabinet tucked in a corner of Don’s studio. Each drawing is organized by species and housed in manila folders – not ideal Woodson Art Museum storage conditions, so there

is urgency to get them properly housed.

Don believed direct in-the-field observation of birds provided a quality difficult to replicate in the studio. Even though fieldwork was fraught with difficulties –inclement weather, insects crawling through drying paint, and waning light – he firmly believed it the proper method to capture the essence of a bird. To Don, the drawing stage was critical and typically took the greatest time. It wasn’t unusual for him to sketch a dozen variations of the same bird position before considering it “just right.”
The sketches mostly are drawn on tracing paper, but some are on paper and illustration board. According to Don, “The point of working on paper rather than directly on the surface allows

changes in composition before putting paint down. This is especially important when preparing illustrations for bird guides where many figures must be arranged on a single plate. Simply, I cut a sheet of tracing paper into workable sizes approximately 4” x 6”. It’s then easy to move the individual drawings about until I get the best possible

Since 2007, I’ve been diligently entering information about each drawing into a database. Among the many steps: assigning a number, measuring each sheet, writing a description including notes on the sheet, and finally completing a condition report. Each summer a dutiful intern scans the works so an image can be attached to each database entry.
I am not a birder. So when I look at these works, I see pencil lines on paper. Some of the drawings include bird names, on occasion even the publication for which they were created. But many, many, others offer no clues to species. I have lovingly labored for hours searching field guides and online birding websites, but many times I am unsuccessful. Don’s years of birding experience made written identification unnecessary. Since I lack his expertise, ultimately, there are dozens of “unknown bird” entries.
So, as time permits, I continue the task of recording drawings. They are an amazing resource that we’d like to offer online in the future. As for me, I hope to complete the documentation before I retire.

*The Woodson Art Museum holds a large collection of Don’s work, a 2009 bequest of his widow, Virginia.

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