Dika Eckersley, 1939-2015

February 28, 2015

imgresIn 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.FullSizeRender-1

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 FullSizeRender-2of 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 FullSizeRenderthe 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.

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Collaboration with Emily

December 14, 2012

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My daughter Emily and I have sometimes talked about collaboration. Not collaboration when it comes to doing homework or dishes–for those issues she’s on her own–but instead working together when it comes to collaborating as artists. And as an artist, Emily reminds me a lot of my mom.

ImageAs a kid, I remember watching my mother talk on the phone with her mother or her friends, not so much because of what she said or how she laughed at whatever they said back, but instead because of the pictures I saw the next day. My father was careful about leaving a pencil and paper next to all the phones in our house so that anyone who answered could take messages if necessary, and when my mother talked on the phone, she used that paper to doodle and sketch.

ImageThe images she left were more often than not close-ups–a face, a profile, a single lushly lashed eye. I was amazed at what she left behind, if only because I was completely incapable of drawing myself. Sure I was only in elementary school, but I instinctively knew my artistic abilities were limited, no matter what the medium–Crayolas to Cray-Pas to Charcoal and beyond. Every week, I thought about filling out those art school tests that were tucked into the Sunday Boston Globe, and every week I knew I didn’t cut the mustard while I suspected my mother surely would.

When Emily was three, I had to bring her to work one day–my boss was amazingly understanding as well as delighted that I considered her Emily’s “grandma away from home.” I had crayons and Hilda had index cards, and soon enough Emily had scribbled a red crayon onto a pink index card. “Bird,” she said to both of us, and Hilda and I took a look at what she’d done. “You need to save that,” Hilda said. “That’s precisely what it looks like.”

ImageAnd as always, Hilda was right. And now I think I’m right to say Emily is a crack illustrator, if only because I see pencil doodles and sketches–and here and there an artfully-rendered close-up of an eye–all over her math and social studies and English notes–and one day I hope for the privilege of collaborating with her on a book. Emily and I have discussed it, but right now we can’t really decide. An ABC book of lost or unloved cars–for example B is for the Subaru Brat, one of the most beautiful and ugliest cars on the planet? Or perhaps a visual history of the Marsh Mallow, the plant Egyptians first used to create a delightfully sweet confection? Or perhaps just an illustrated fairy tale in which the mother isn’t required to die before the story even begins, and the step-mother doesn’t necessarily have to be THE most evil character in the book? We’re not sure yet–we’re still brainstorming.

As I wait for Emily to decide I think a picture is worth a thousands words, which means Emily is clearly in charge. So I will post her newest creations. This year, her holiday gifts to her friends are illustrations–a unique illustration for each friend. Because I begged and pleaded and agreed to help with the above-mentioned dishes chore she’s responsible for, she said I could post her pictures. Enjoy!

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1. Spent a lovely couple of end-of-summer weeks in a cabin in New Hampshire where I somehow managed to blow through the revisions on my book. I was amazed at how much work I was able to do when, for the first time in my life, I had the luxury of working like writing was a real job (though sadly I received no paycheck).

2. While I only had two weeks and not two years like Thoreau had when he wrote Walden, I did feel a little Thoreau-like in my cabin in the woods, even dusting off my old flute and playing for the birds . . .  (and yes, any bad  “Kate’s flute playing is for the birds” comments would be entirely appropriate here).

3. Other than tidying up what I hope will be the final major edit of My Brief History, I think the other great accomplishment of the trip was convincing my dog Charley to take the great leap and go swimming. Charley is part-Lab, but he only inherited the “likes to jump up on people” Lab gene and has, until now, been completely terrified of any water that’s not sitting quietly in a bowl next to his food. I have to say I was proud of both of us.

How Charley usually looks when he gets too close to large bodies of water.

4. Went to Gilford Old Home Day and fell into the trap of telling the kids “Back in my day there were no fireworks, no climbing wall or fried dough or rock bands playing in the grandstand and still we had fun,” though I strongly suspect that wasn’t really the case. Was pleased to see one band in particular—Rick Page and The Round-Ups, which you can hear for yourself at http://www.myspace.com/rick1page1. I thought they were terrific though I admit I may be a little biased because I was in Rick Page’s first band—a.k.a. the Gilford Middle High School Band . . .

5. Wondered for a minute whether I might deduct my New Hampshire stay on my taxes by claiming it as research for my book, in part because I ran into a handful of people I hadn’t seen since high school and was quickly able to determine that my characterizations were right on . . . would love to hear from any accountants out there if that might count as fact-checking or not.

6. Managed a field trip to the Weirs, which I attempt at least once a summer if only to make sure the neon sign is still there and the Drive-In Theater is still open. (Yes to both). Also learned the disturbing information from the coin-operated animatronic fortune-teller on the boardwalk that my lucky color was pink just before her recorded voice began endlessly repeating, “Fortunes out. Please report to arcade attendant. Fortunes out. Please report to arcade attendant.”

However my luck changed when I discovered the end-of-season $2 sunglass wall at the boardwalk T-shirt shop, where I bought a pair of rose-colored glasses—and yes, life did immediately look better, so maybe my lucky color is pink even if I appear to currently be out of fortunes—and I found a pair of fab white bigger than Jackie O. shades that I now wear everyday out on the playground with my students since summer is over and school has begun again. . .

7. Had a chapter of my book published this fall in Prairie Schooner, a literary magazine I worked for ages ago. Prairie Schooner published Chapter 3 of the book, which I re-titled “Method Acting” because “Chapter 3” sounded a little lame. I’d summarize it for you, but then you might not care about reading it, so I’ll leave it a mystery. I was inspired by a large portion of the rest of the Fall 2010 Prairie Schooner, which is a collection of tributes to the magazine’s editor—my former boss, mentor, and friend, Hilda Raz—to honor her retirement. Hilda Raz is one of the main reasons that today I write more than just grocery lists and notes to Joe and Emily’s teachers about early pickups for dentist appointments, but rather than go on at length about Hilda’s attributes myself, I will instead include the most succinct and witty tribute, written by my friend and one of my favorite writers, Erin Flanagan. I will end this post with her words:

What I Learned from Hilda Raz

by Erin Flanagan

Strong glasses demand attention. Do not let people you don’t respect tell you what to do. Always carry an extra pair of underpants in your purse when you travel. Listen to your instincts. If you throw a dinner party and find a spider in the salad, pluck it from the greens and make a literary reference that will leave your guests charmed. Love your children fiercely and honestly. Surround yourself with brilliant friends. Survive. Listen to what an author is trying to tell you no matter what she is saying. Call first thing in the morning to keep people on their toes. Follow your heart, that nebulous device.

What I failed to learn from Hilda Raz: how to imagine Prairie Schooner without her.

Reprinted from Prairie Schooner, Fall 2010, by permission of Erin Flanagan