In the summer of 1995 in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, Hilda Raz and I met with a few friends for lunch, one of whom was Dika Eckersley. It was my birthday, and I was being treated by the lovely collection of women who produced the literary magazine, Prairie Schooner, where I worked as Managing Editor. Hilda, the magazine’s editor, and I shared office space at the University of Nebraska English Department, but the production team worked at the University of Nebraska Press across town, so Hilda established the birthday lunch tradition, ensuring we’d all get together at least a few times each year. Outside the restaurant that bright day in August, Dika handed me a red clay pot with a newspaper laid flat on top.
“Open it,” she told me with a mischievous smile, so I lifted up the newspaper. I laughed in surprise as out flew a monarch butterfly; attached to a twig inside the pot was what remained of its chrysalis. “I’d been watching it outside my kitchen window,” Dika said, “and I thought it would make the perfect gift.” Indeed it did.
This is the story that came to mind when I heard that Dika had died at home in Lincoln this week, at age 75. Her designs for Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska Press were so like that gift, so like the person Dika was: lovely, full of delight, and wrapped in layers of meaning.
Four times a year, Dika collaborated with Hilda to create the cover of Prairie Schooner, and watching them work was one of the best parts of my job. Sometimes Hilda, Dika and I trekked to the Sheldon Art Gallery where the director would let us go into the cool, dry rooms and sift through the terrific breadth of images they had in storage. Other times we’d visit a local studio or meet with an artist in our offices, but more often than not Dika would just create cover art using one of her own photographs or images or using another favorite medium—the copy machine—and the result was always remarkable.
Once we visited local artist Kate Brooke, intending to choose one of her woodblock prints, Dika instead picking a page from Kate’s journal for the cover, littered with scraps of poems and tiny animals that she had reproduced in silver. Another time, Hilda brought in a collection of her own childhood photographs, and she and I selected two perfect images of Hilda at three, smiling beatifically at the camera as she held her older brother’s hand. For the cover, however, Dika picked a photo slightly out of focus where Hilda’s brother has had his head unceremoniously cut off. Of course, Hilda and I immediately realized it as the ideal image to reflect that issue’s particularly troubling stories and poems. For Dika was a designer, but she also was a reader, and she recognized the intimate connection that a magazine’s cover should have with the narrative created from the stories, essays, and poems within. In Dika’s world, books should—and could be—judged by their covers.
One of my proudest moments at Prairie Schooner was when we celebrated the magazine’s 75th anniversary in the fall of 2001. Writers came from around the country to give readings and lectures about the magazine’s impact on American literature in the 20th century, and in conjunction with the conference, Sheldon Museum director Daniel Siedell curated a gallery exhibition, “The Visual Culture of Prairie Schooner.” At that point, Dika had been designing Prairie Schooner covers for about twenty years, and walking through the gallery opening, no one could ignore that it was her designs dominating the show. Dika, however firm she was in her vision, was also modest in accepting praise, and I was so glad that for a time her work shared equal space in the Sheldon with Rothko, Warhol, Hopper, et al, where she absolutely belonged. Dika was a wonderful designer and a good friend, and while her designs will live on, she will be missed by many.
I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Daniel Siedell’s essay that accompanied the Sheldon Exhibition; his praise is more eloquent than mine:
Raz and Eckersley both understood the significance of material and visual culture and used it, through a visual politics of the cover, to “represent” or “image” the shifting focus of the Prairie Schooner. . . . Moreover, Raz’s and Eckersley’s aggressive aesthetic is intended to communicate the significance of the written word within a culture saturated by visual imagery. These cover designs illustrate the significant relationship between the word and image that intertwine the histories of modern literature and art. “The Visual Culture of Prairie Schooner” suggests that if we isolate word from image, literature from art, we do so to the impoverishment of our appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the world of culture.