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Sunday Seniors: Transcending Parkinson’s Disease Through Painting

  • David Eckert in an undated photograph.

  • A selection of watercolor paintings created by the late Dave Eckert. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) —Courtesy photograph

  • A selection of watercolor paintings created by the late Dave Eckert. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) —Courtesy photograph

  • A selection of watercolor paintings created by the late Dave Eckert. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) Valley News photographs — Liz Sauchelli

  • A selection of watercolor paintings created by the late Dave Eckert. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) —Courtesy photograph

  • A selection of watercolor paintings created by the late Dave Eckert. (Valley News — Liz Sauchelli) —Courtesy photograph

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 7/21/2018 11:07:00 PM
Modified: 7/21/2018 11:07:18 PM

Lebanon — For all purposes, Dave Eckert was a chemist.

Of course, he was more than that — husband, father, friend — but his job was as a Ph.D-level chemist.

That is until a diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease in his early 50s caused Eckert to retire early.

“He would never want me to praise Parkinson’s disease, but because he was not able to work, he pursued teaching himself watercolor painting,” said Julie Eckert, Dave Eckert’s widow.

With the level of devotion that drove him — a son of parents who had eighth-grade educations, a small boy who worked in the fields in Iowa to buy money for school clothes — to pursue a doctorate in chemistry, he focused on art.

“He bought every book he could buy on watercolors,” Julie Eckert recalled. “When he had a focus, this chemist, this analytical mind told him what to do.”

And what he did was paint. He started with simple landscapes — lots of snow, mailboxes, buildings and the occasional bird. The skies were darker, with no evidence of sun. But it didn’t take him long to advance to still lifes and sailboats tossed in the sea through a storm.

“He progressed with the quality of his art, even as his disease progressed,” Julie Eckert, a native Vermonter who now lives in Enfield, said. “He made better and better art.”

A collection of Eckert’s watercolors is currently on display in the Endoscopy Hallway Gallery on the fourth level at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the first show to feature so many of his works. The exhibit will be up through the end of September. The 34 paintings offer a sampling of the more than 250 watercolors he created prior to his death in 2009.

“It was a great fit for our area,” said Marianne Barthel, Arts Program Coordinator at DHMC. “We try to balance between familiarity… and trying to escape to other places.”

There’s one painting in the exhibit that stands out from the rest. It’s a portrait of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 shortly after Eckert was diagnosed.

“Dave was not a religious person. He was not focused on Mother Teresa, but it affected him when she died,” Julie Eckert said. After seeing a picture of her in the newspaper, Eckert decided to paint her portrait. “It makes no sense. It’s a very detailed portrait of her. It was early on in his painting and you just think ‘how did he do this?’”

It’s a question that Julie Eckert and others continue to ponder nearly a decade after her husband’s death. How did a man who had difficulty controlling the movement of his hands hold a paintbrush? How did he have the concentration, the focus, for painting?

Eckert had the classic symptom of Parkinson’s disease, tremors. Later, he also developed double vision and his movements became slower. As time went went on, the watercolors would dry too fast for Eckert’s speed and he created a technique — perhaps inspired by his chemist’s training — that allowed him to wet the page. In addition to painting, he also cut and polished rocks to make jewelry.

“I do believe art is about story,” Barthel said. “The story behind it is incredibly inspiring.”

The Eckert family still has his notebooks, where David Eckert would create 1-by-1 inch squares of paint, combining different colors to find the perfect shade for whatever piece he was working on.

“The analytical mind, it wasn’t like mine,” Julie Eckert said. The couple met as students at the University of Arizona and eventually made their home with their sons in Atlanta, Ga. “He saw colors. He saw things differently, very precisely.”

The exhibit is bookended by a painting called Parkinson’s Disease Journey. In it are trees in various stages of being pulled from the snowy ground, the roots and branches creating a patchwork of shapes.

“He never said that was his Parkinson’s journey, but I think it is,” Julie Eckert said. At the time of Eckert’s death there was still a painting on his easel and a piece of jewelry at his workstation. “He had lots of opportunities during that Parkinson’s journey, but he wouldn’t have asked to be on it.”

And unless someone knew the backstory of Eckert’s art, there is no indication that he had Parkinson’s disease.

“You don’t see in his paintings any unsteadiness,” Julie Eckert said. “The lines are very precise and I’m thinking ‘how did you do that?’”

Dave Eckert may not have been able to do logarithms or process chemistry anymore, but he could look at a blank sheet of paper and a collection of paints and see pictures. That he was able to translate that despite (or because of) of his disease is — to put it simply — incredible.

“How can I have the words?” Julie Eckert said about the exhibit. “This is bigger than words.”

It’s also a lot bigger than Parkinson’s disease.

Editor’s note: The summer art exhibit at DHMC also features work by B Cook and NatEli, Doris Ingram, Laurence Harper, Robert Chapla, The Upper Valley Woodturners, Anne Ward and Tatiana Yanofskaya-Sink. For more information, visit www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/arts.html or call 603-650-6187. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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