By all appearances, James Eccles was your average banker, working for Continental Bank in Chicago for four decades, retiring in 1945. He then embarked on his real career-as a serious watercolor and oil painter amassing a body of work that remains prized among collectors to this day.

Embarked is the operative word because Eccles did much of his work while traveling to exotic locales-the Caribbean, South America and Asia-by “tramp steamer” or freighter. It was cheaper than the luxury liners, and not that much rougher. Freighters had rooms for their paying passengers and Eccles was often accompanied on his brushman’s holidays by his daughter (Eccles’ first wife died when she was 5).

He also traveled closer to home, being a frequent visitor to Brown County in southern Indiana, where he was counted among the local collective of American Impressionists whose work still graces the walls of galleries there.

But he was first and foremost an Oak Park resident and artist, living here most of his 97 years (he died in 1983 while changing the oil in his car after returning from a painting trip). And he was a longtime instructor and member of the Oak Park Art League, so it’s appropriate that the Art League should mount the first major Eccles Retrospective, “A Banker’s Cultural Investment,” which opens tomorrow night at the league’s recently refurbished gallery, the work made possible by Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest.

The Oak Park Art League has a long history in the community and a distinguished legacy of work produced by its members. In the last few years, the league has begun to showcase some of this heritage by mounting retrospectives of highly regarded artists, such as the late Philip White.

The Art League was hoping to highlight a different artist this year, but those plans fell through. Longtime league board member Bobbie Raymond happened to mention their predicament to auctioneer and art collector Jim Bohenstengel, who was familiar with Eccles’ work and recommended it.

Raymond, who is serving as curator of the current exhibit, is very glad he did. “We’ve never mounted a show that has had so much historical interest,” she said. “Sometimes you have to see a lifetime of work to recognize the significance of it.”

This is the first time so much of Eccles’ work has been collected in one place, and the results have been illuminating. They’ve been able to identify where some of the works were painted, Raymond said, because they can now be viewed in context with other works from the same locations. And some of the miniature watercolors served as preliminary studies for the larger oils he created later.

Eccles sent many of his miniature watercolors to friends as holiday cards. A collection of those makes up one portion of the exhibit. A larger section comes from Eccles’ only daughter, Jean Guy, who now lives in Las Cruces, N.M. Art League President Keith Taylor and a friend traveled to New Mexico last fall and drove them back. Some pieces were taken right off the walls of Guy’s home (with permission of course), while the rest were housed in a gallery in Las Cruces.

“We went down expecting to get about 16 paintings,” Taylor said. “We came back with over 100 watercolors. We drove 1,600 miles straight through. We didn’t want to stop somewhere with all that stuff in the car.”

Taylor said they conducted video interviews with Guy and other family members while they were down there, which will run on a loop during the exhibit.

King of Arts

The family called Eccles “Pop,” and he’s been described as “the happiest of people,” always smiling, upbeat, sporting his trademark bow tie.

“He was soft-spoken, calm, well-liked, always the gentleman,” said Raymond. He taught “plein air” classes (open air) for landscape artists through the Art League. He and his students would pack a bag lunch and head out to the farmland at what is now 5th and North avenues to spend an entire Saturday painting.

“He exhibited well into his 80s,” Raymond said. In fact, his last show was held in 1982 at Paintin’ Place Gallery, 820 North Blvd. (next to John Toomey’s gallery). At the age of 90 he was named “King of Arts” by the West Suburban Artists Guild.

Taylor says Eccles painted until he died, and he made all his own frames, characterized by their bleached, bone color.

He describes Eccles’s style as “painterly. It’s not postcard art. It’s very atmospheric.”

Faith Humphrey-Hill, Art League executive director, describes his style as “spontaneous but sure-handed. He uses paint to make a statement. You can tell he enjoyed painting.”

“His perspective is fabulous,” Taylor added. “There is a maturity to his color choices. He enjoyed the palette.”

He also valued the uneventful-“honoring the mundane,” as Taylor puts it-choosing for his subject matter ordinary scenes of people working, often in the harbors where his ships took him. “He makes the everyday interesting,” Taylor noted.

Working with the families to mount these retrospectives has been “fascinating,” Taylor says. “We’re on a mission to do one of these a year. It’s exciting to find out more about our history.”

It also helps the largely volunteer organization (approximately 300 members strong) to raise needed funds. Many of the works in this show, for instance, are for sale (ranging from $150 for the miniatures to $3,000 for the larger oils) and the Art League gets a 35-percent commission on sales.

The show’s run (till Feb. 6) will include a three-day performance festival featuring theater, music, dance, improv comedy, even puppeteering, Jan. 23-25. Taylor says they’re always looking for new ways to bring people into their facility. Their attitude, he says, is, “We’ve got a barn; let’s put on a show.”

And they’re also always on the lookout for new board members and volunteers. You don’t have to be a working artist. Contact or call 386-8853 if you’re interested.

As for James Eccles, working artist, former banker, and tramp steamer passenger, Raymond says, “As an artist, long after you’re gone, it would be nice to know you’re not only still selling but gaining new appreciation. What more could an artist want than to be remembered? I think he would have been really happy.”

The Jan. 8 reception (5-7:30 p.m.) costs $25 per person and features food from the Marion Street Cheese Market. The public reception (same time) on Jan. 9 is free. The Oak Park Art League is located at 720 Chicago Ave., halfway between Oak Park and Euclid avenues, north side of the street in an E.E. Roberts-designed building.

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