All Creatures Great & Small
Jackson, Devon, Southwest Art
THERE'S SOMETHING BOTH MEDIEVAL AND MODERN-DAY, antiquated yet bright, about Carol Eckert's artworks. The age-old part of it has to do with the ancient arts of basketry and tapestry, vocations dating back millennia and spawning continents and civilizations. The contemporary part comes from the vivid colors of her cotton embroidery thread, the three-dimensional airiness of her soft sculptures, and the cheerful joie de vivre of her birds and animals.
Although reminiscent of the baskets of the Papago of southern Arizona (also known as the Tohono O'odham) and the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters (housing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval European collection in Manhattan), and indebted too to the animal motifs popular in the early 20th-century Arts and Crafts movement, Eckert's carefully coiled menageries exude a lightheartedness that's all her own. An almost childlike lightheartedness that's reflective of the fables, myths, parables, and other tales Eckert so dearly loves.
"I've always loved mythology and animals, and I'm a very big reader," says Eckert from her home in Phoenix, AZ, where she's lived almost her entire adult life. "The narrative quality of my work comes from that, from a love of fables and mythology and art history."
Her works, though, aren't so much morality tales or lessons on how to live as they are celebrations of the roles that animals have in the lives of humans. Her three-tiered ABRAHAM'S SACRIFICE, for instance, barely hints at the impending sacrifice intended for the centrally located rams. Instead, the piece offers up the feeling of creaturely cohabitation. Similarly, there's nothing morbid about SOUL FLIGHT (whereupon birds and animals perch symmetrically around and atop a sort of Jewish Sephiroth tree, reminiscent of that in the Kabbalah) or intimidating about CELTIC SCEPTOR (where the intertwined snakes typical of this druidic motif are of such a rich lavender that they look almost edible).
Born and raised in North Carolina, Eckert received a bachelor of science degree with high distinction in painting from Arizona State University in 1967. An abstract painter back then, she got a job teaching painting and drawing at a community art center. But she was much more interested in what her peers were up to in the center's adjoining rooms-the fiber arts and ceramics studios.
Gradually, she moved from the abstract to the tangible-from painting to clay. She even built herself a kiln in her back yard. As satisfying as that work was, however, she ultimately decided to move on. "I'd gotten into clay because I was interested in the three-dimensional forms," explains Eckert. "But I wasn't thrilled with it technically."
In about 1981, while teaching at a children's art center, Eckert came across an article about basketry. "I thought it would be good for the kids to learn," she recalls, "and then 7 got into it." Soon, very soon, she'd immersed herself in it. Or, more accurately, she'd discovered herself and her true artistic calling. "It wasn't until I accidentally stumbled into basketry that I found a direction that was right for me," admits Eckert. "It came as real simple, and very quickly, it just felt right. I discovered I had this ability with coiled basketry."
STARTING OUT SMALL AND FOCUSING on vessel-based pieces, Eckert soon made an even more momentous discovery: She found an old photograph of a Yoruba headdress. "It was this incredible beaded thing," she remembers. "The image of that piece made me think of animals as something to use. So I started with one bird. Then I expanded from there."
Eventually, her pieces became larger and more complex, and more satisfying. "Coiling combined the two areas I'd been working in but hadn't found much satisfaction from," says Eckert, who'd already embroidered and quilted as a girl ("I did all that campfire girl group stuff," she confesses, "so I felt comfortable with all of it") and knitted as an adult. "It had a very similar process to tapestry and weaving, and it had elements of day and ceramics to it, too. …