The art of Anne Eckley
By LONN TAYLOR
Anne Eckley of Alpine has been making art for seventy years. As a child in Lawton, Oklahoma, she discovered that she would rather draw than play games, and her third-grade teacher let her stay in at recess and draw flowers. Her mother, who was a National Flower Show judge, encouraged her, and so when she entered the University of Oklahoma in 1947 she majored in art. “ It was just as the boys were coming back from the war – it was wonderful,” she told me when I interviewed her at her Alpine home. She married one of those boys, who graduated from law school at O.U. to become a lawyer for Shell, and Eckley combined corporate wifehood and motherhood with teaching art in junior high and high school in whatever town her husband was transferred to. “We started out in Denver,” she told me, “the dream of every Okie.” She explained that in Oklahoma, wealth is measured by how many weeks you can afford to spend on vacation in Colorado.
As an undergraduate, Eckley studied design with Bruce Goff, a self-taught architect, artist, and composer who was head of the School of Architecture at O.U. and whose organic Art Deco buildings have made him a cult figure in the Midwest. “He was fabulous,” she remembers. “He wore pastel-colored turtlenecks and collarless jackets and he encouraged creativity.”
Eckley continued to paint and teach painting during her husband’s peripatetic years with Shell, but in the early 1970s Shell threatened to send him to New York and he changed jobs. They settled down in Humble, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where she opened an interior decorating shop. That is how she discovered her unique medium, thread painting.
Thread painting is making pictures with a sewing machine, using colored thread instead of paint. Eckley explained to me that her interior decorating business thrived because the suburb of Kingswood was just being built, and she was working with both contractors and homeowners to design the interiors of the new houses. She has always enjoyed sewing – she told me that as a girl, she couldn’t wait to show off the dresses she had made for herself, and when she would run to her friends’ houses wearing them their mothers would say, “Anne, don’t you know how to cut the threads?” – and she started making jackets, dresses, and kimonos as gifts for her clients. She decorated the clothes with thread pictures. “And then,” she said, “I discovered that it was a lot easier to sew a thread picture on a flat surface than on one that was curved to fit a body, and that is what I have been doing ever since.”
Eckley took me into her studio to show me how she works. It is a bright, sunny room with windows down one side, looking out onto a garden devoted entirely to lavender plants. “There are ninety-seven of them,” she said. ”We planted a hundred but three died.” Shelves and cabinets filled with spools of colored thread line the other three walls. Eckley says she doesn’t know how many spools she has, but there must be over a thousand. Her ambition is to own one spool of every color made, but she says this is impossible because the thread companies develop new colors faster than she can buy them. Most of her thread, she says, is manufactured by Coats and Clark, which is the largest manufacturer of cotton thread in the world, but she also uses Mettler thread and Guterman thread imported from Germany. Several years ago, while attending a textile arts conference in North Carolina, Eckley had an opportunity to tour the Coats and Clark warehouse. The conference attendees were invited to take free samples of thread spools. “I didn’t take enough,” Eckley says.
Eckley sews on a Bernina 1090 sewing machine, a German model. She has five of them, one that she uses in her studio, three others that she cannibalizes for spare parts, and a portable that she says she seldom uses. In order to create a thread picture, Eckley starts by painting the image on an eight-by-eleven inch sheet of canvas, using acrylic paints. She frequently works from a photograph that she has taken and her images are usually rural or urban landscapes. The day that I was there she was working from a photograph of the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, but some of her thread paintings depict scenes in Mexico and Italy. She and her husband travel widely.
Once the scene is painted on the canvas, she inserts the canvas into the sewing machine and starts sewing, filling in one color at a time and changing thread frequently. She usually starts with the sky because, she says, she likes blue. You would expect this technique to produce a hard-edged paint-by-the-numbers effect, but it does not, because she often goes back and lightens or darkens areas with a different color of thread. The result is actually a blurred softness, reminiscent of eighteenth-century silk embroidery. “It’s like painting with a paintbrush the thickness of a thread,” Eckley says. Each canvas square takes her about a month to complete.
The Eckleys retired and moved to Alpine from Humble four years ago, buying a Santa Fe style house in Sunny Glen. “I had to go from painting trees in the Houston area to painting rocks in Alpine,” Eckley told me. “The trees were easier than the rocks.” At eighty-four, Eckley has recently discovered a new medium, pastel. Since February she has been working with Fort Davis pastel artist Lindy Severns. “I love it!” she says. “It is so much faster than what I have been doing.” But she says she does not intend to abandon thread painting.
Anne Eckley’s work in both media can be seen in the exhibit “A Common Thread,” which also includes tapestries and watercolors by weaver Ann Matlock of Dripping Springs and will be at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine through August 5.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk