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JOY OF A BIRD

The Art of a Solitary Life – Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. Memorial Exhibition


Acknowledgements Thank you to Louanne Glasgow, Linda Dennish, Betsy Dunkel, and William & Thelma Maughlin for sharing paintings, writings and artifacts from the estate of the artist, as well as memories about the artist.

Editor

Heidi Leitzke / Assistant Professor of Art; Director, Eckert Art Gallery

Photography

John Powl / Under the Bridge Productions

Design

David Ramsay, Jr. / Mighty Fine Print

Printing

WhiteOak Printing / Lancaster, PA

Artwork © 2019 Louanne Glasgow on behalf of Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. Catalog Design © 2019 Millersville University. Millersville University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Institution. A member of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.


JOY OF A BIRD The Art of a Solitary Life Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. Memorial Exhibition Susan C. and Gerald C. Eckert Art Gallery Winter Visual and Performing Arts Center | Millersville University March 21–May 11, 2019 Exhibition curated by Heidi Leitzke and Sarah Noble Essay by Sarah Noble

millersville.edu


“So, if there be a joyful noise though . . . not too loud, almost about anything, . . . then, your day can be that toward the joy of a bird.”

In our time, it is nearly unthinkable that those whose brilliance in their field far transcends the commonplace would decline to seek outside affirmation, pursue no audience for their opus, beyond their own eyes and ears. In an age when even the most minute details of lives are being shared publicly on social media, the thought of a purposefully unshared life’s work or masterpiece may leave us questioning the true purpose of creating. On March 22, 2015, Ralph Henry Eck, Jr., an unknown, self-taught artist, passed away at the age of 84 leaving his private life’s work behind, mostly unsigned, with no directive for it to be preserved, shown or shared. In 1967 he had returned home, following service in the Korean War, and a career as an English teacher, to live with his mother for the second half of his life. His years following were spent tending to his mother’s

Ralph Henry Eck, Jr., 1930 – 2015 Millersville State Teachers College Class of 1957 Photo c. 1960

needs, working in a factory, and creating art. He spent those decades immersed in the

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creation of masterfully spirited paintings and manuscripts for his own enjoyment in the basement of his childhood home on an urban street of industrial era row homes in York, Pennsylvania. Eck created his paintings with layers of house paint over precisely cut and layered found materials, built up to a sometimes impossibly heavy and thick surface giving the painted forms a physical dimension. Some paintings weigh as much as twenty pounds and each took up to several years to create. In many, the painting surface breaks the two-dimensional format, resembling the high relief depth of an ancient frieze. While the subject matter varies greatly among his paintings, his major works are lively and explore narratives of childhood, nature, and cryptic global folklore, likely inspired by his studies and world travels during college and the Korean war serving in the 695th Air Force Band. Each painting shows fantastical characters, animals and plants often occupying dense, formally complex, and mythical worlds. Of his seventeen known paintings, most never left his basement studio until after his passing. Beyond paintings, his work includes binders densely filled with hand-written manuscripts. The narratives are lucid, flowing freely through largely whimsical and nostalgic fantasies often involving childhood, Christmas, a country fair, and family. They seem to be complexly autobiographical at times about his work and life. He used meticulous old English dialects and other complex linguistics in his writing, some overwritten with a pronunciation key. One sixty-two page work, entitled, “A Rose Sponbile, … Hoveren’ ofer thse Sphynx” was fastidiously first scribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet, then Old English. The text morphs into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs hand drawn in marker as the subject of the narrative, the Roseatte Spoonbill hovers Single Page Excerpt from “A Rose Spon-bile…Hoveren’ ofer thse Sphynx,” Manuscript of long poem written by Eck in The International Phonetic Alphabet, Old English, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Colored Inks on Paper, 1987.

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Two Page Excerpts from “Wonder Where,� Illustrated manuscript written in multiple alternating languages. Colored Inks on Composition Paper, c. 1978.

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over the Sphinx. Other works are overwritten in multiple early languages leaving a densely worked precise visual layering of ancient languages. Much of his writing and notebooks have yet to be fully studied. In later years, Eck also created masks he called “friends.” They hung around his living room, following his mother’s death at the age of 101, to keep him company. He also intricately hand-crafted seashells made from Elmer’s Glue, cut strips of paper, and cardboard. Only a handful of these masks and seashells survive. Through a personally fateful work appointment, I came across what remained of Ralph Henry Eck, Jr.’s life work as the contents of his home were being dispersed and sold a short time after his death. Deeply moved by the unfolding mysteries of his work and life story, as told to me by his niece Louanne Glasgow, I resolved to memorialize him through study and documentation of his work and life. Eck’s paintings and story revealed to me an artist who had lived a complete life creating inspired works, which brought him fulfillment, personal exploration, and joy, and which hold the power to do the same for others. Through the generosity of his Alma Mater, Millersville University, and curatorial collaboration with Eckert Art Gallery Director, Heidi Leitzke, this dream was made possible in this memorial exhibition. Eck’s niece and her childhood friends who knew him speak of him as joy-filled, a whimsical, yet self-protective man who preferred not to talk of himself or his work. In reference to his artwork, to the few close to him who saw it during his life, he would preface their basement viewing with the resolved statement, “These paintings are purely for my own enjoyment.” Single Page from Eck’s original composition, “One sonnet of rice and an almond cooky,” featuring handwritten translations in layers of multiple languages, including Japanese Hiragana. Colored Pencil and Ink on Paper, c. 1975.

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Joy is referenced throughout Eck’s writings. In a letter written to his niece and her friend in 2006 he wrote, “...A mother deer and her babies in the wild have never been seen by me, and the sight of mama bear and her cubs might bring about the same, Louanne and Dave. ...fox, rabbit, raccoon, near-shore fish and theirra lytel can— I guess—bring the same joy.” (Old English spellings were included throughout his writings.) This memorial exhibition of Ralph Henry Eck, Jr.’s work, “Joy of a Bird: The Art of a Solitary Life” serves as our “joyful noise” about the world’s inheritance of his private work. It opens one day before the four year anniversary of Ralph’s passing, and two days before what would have been his 88th birthday. However joyful, puzzled, or inspired the works of Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. leave us, we must remember that it was not their purpose. Their purpose was solely to bring joy to their creator. The freeing notion that private joy can be the end goal of the act of creating is a gift to all. 

Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. 62 years old in 1992

“Prayer For The Day” written and typed by Eck, c. 1975.

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Untitled (Storybook Beach, for Louanne), c. late 1960’s, paint, sticks, and string on canvas, 24 x 48 inches

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Der Bremen Musikanten [The Bremen Town Musicians] (title as written in the artist’s hand and attached to the painting), c. late 1960’s, paint, sticks, and cut board on canvas, 24 x 48 inches

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ün aréne cirque… [A Circus Arena...] (title as written in the artist’s own hand and attached to the painting), c. early 1970’s, paint and painted sticks on canvas, 24 x 48 inches

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Untitled (Scottish Bagpipers and Dancers), c. early 1970’s, layered paint on canvas, heavily cracked, 24 x 48 inches

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der erste schnee [the first snow] (title as written in the artist’s hand and attached to the painting), c. mid 1970’s, heavily layered paint on canvas, 30 x 44 inches

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Untitled (Mountain Pass with Figure, Llama and Eagle), c. late 1970’s, heavily layered paint, with board or foam, on canvas, 24 x 48 inches

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Above: Detail, viking ship and twine. Left: Detail, singing and dancing figures

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Untitled (Golden Harbor), c. early 1980’s, heavily layered paint with rope, twine, rubber band, cut and painted board, and glitter on canvas, 26 x 44 inches

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Handwritten by the artist in blue marker pen on the reverse side of painting: nasalis lavatus hylobates lar presbytis geei pongo satyrs satyrus tomistoma schlegeli chonropython viridis rhesus monkey mangosteen: fruit bread fruit bamboo croton: codiaeum variegatum ixora macrothyrsa: starflower neofelis nebulosa red bananas

Detail

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Untitled (Amazon Jungle), c. mid 1980’s, heavily layered paint on canvas, 30 x 44 inches

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Handwritten by the artist in black and green marker on the reverse side of painting: American toad; mealy parrot; Forest iguana; humming bird; two-toed sloth; toucan; forest iguana, idem‌. Amazonian jungal life: Amazon jungal trochilidae: humming bird; bradypodidae: two-toed sloth; ramphastidae: tucena: (a) of Tupi; psittaciformes: mealy parrot; bufonidae; poison-arrow fromd; iugna: af Arawak – iguana; Detail

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Untitled (Amazon Birds and Sloth), c. early–mid 1990’s, heavily layered paint on canvas, twine, and sticks adhered to front of canvas, 44 x 30 inches

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Detail

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Untitled (Cornstalk with Mask and Butterflies), c. early–mid 1990’s, paint, twine, and painted cut board on canvas, 60 x 20 inches. Reverse side of painting is shown on right, revealing a heavily embossed surface, showing the forms of the painted image.

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Untitled (Butterfly and Bee), circa mid 1990’s, paint on canvas, 24 x 12 inches

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Lepidoptera—Tithonia: (Mod E. : Sundance) Aqui- foliaceae et Taraxacum, (title as written in the artist’s hand and attached to the painting), circa mid 1990’s, paint on canvas, 12 x 26 inches


et Carangidae et Tibia fus (title as written in the artist’s hand and attached to the painting), circa late 1990’s, paint and glitter on canvas, 26 x 10 inches

Untitled (perhaps last painting, work in progress), c. late 1990’s, painted white forms on raw, unprimed canvas, 28 x 8 inches

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Handwritten by the artist in violet and green marker on the reverse side of painting on right: top fish: red emperor: adult bottom fish: rainbow parrot fish: brightly colored- tiger cowrie: kind of sea shell-. vegetation: turtle grasses, various greens

Untitled (Fish with Air Bubbles), c. mid–late 1980’s, paint with layers of foam and board on canvas. 24 x 12 inches

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Untitled (Parrot Fish, Red Emperor and Tiger Cowrie Shell), c. late 1990’s, paint and glitter on canvas, 26 x 14 inches


Susan C. and Gerald C. Eckert Art Gallery millersville.edu/eckertgallery

Joy of a Bird: The Art of a Solitary Life - Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. Memorial Exhibition  

"So, if there be a joyful noise though... not too loud, almost about anything,.. then, your day can be that toward the joy of a bird." — Ral...

Joy of a Bird: The Art of a Solitary Life - Ralph Henry Eck, Jr. Memorial Exhibition  

"So, if there be a joyful noise though... not too loud, almost about anything,.. then, your day can be that toward the joy of a bird." — Ral...

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