‘When we moved here, I never realized how much this Lakota culture was going to impact my artwork’
It’s a scene out of Plains Indian history: Five mounted Lakota braves drive a herd of buffalo over a cliff in the sacred Black Hills as women and children wait below to begin the work of butchering meat for the coming season. You’ve likely seen such a depiction in various art forms. But chances are you’ve never seen anything like it in this medium. Not wax. Not clay. Not stone. Not bronze.
Prairie Edge Hunt is a one-sixth life-size (8 feet 6 inches long by nearly 6 feet high) cast-paper sculpture in 15-inch relief—the fourth in a series telling the story of one Lakota family. Sculptors Allen and Patty Eckman of Rapid City, S.D., created the work on a commission by Prairie Edge, a Rapid City trading company and gallery specializing in art of the Northern Plains Indians. The gallery offers the piece for $55,000. “It took us 11 months to complete,” Allen says, “because we had to do so much original sculpture. We did work on other things, too, but it was pretty intense.”
Cast-paper sculpture is far removed from papier-mâché or altered book art, and although artists have worked with the basic medium since the 1950s, the Eckmans invented and trademarked their own process—the Eckman Method—in which they mix acid-free paper pulp, then chase, alter, sculpt and detail each piece. The finished product is stark white. “I really love white for fine art,” Allen says. “I think light and shadow really articulate the form and texture and detail in our sculpture and really show it off.”
The method came about “totally by accident,” Allen says. “I’d never sculpted a thing before in my life. I thought we’d paint. I saw this paper cast, I guess it was in 1986 or ’87, and in my mind’s eye I saw what we do now.”
The discovery may have been accidental, but not the Eckmans’ love for art.
“It’s something I was born with,” Patty says. Allen adds, “My mother said I was born with a pencil in my hand.”
The couple met while attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. They married and operated an ad agency in the San Fernando Valley. In 1992 they shucked the L.A. stress and moved to Rapid City, where Patty had grown up.
Both find inspiration in western South Dakota. “The Black Hills are beautiful,” Patty says. “There’s a lot of Lakota culture around here. Their culture is rich with color and so much beauty. And, of course, the best piece of sculpture is Mount Rushmore. That’s pretty inspiring, too.”
Allen claims Cherokee ancestry. His great-great-great-grandmother was Tounacha Case, a Cherokee born in North Carolina in 1793. That heritage pushed him to depict Indians when he and Patty shifted from commercial art to fine art.
“Allen’s more of a history buff and interested in culture that way,” says Patty. “But I love their art and their attire that they use, things that are beautiful to look at.”
When it comes to cast-paper sculpting they are truly a team.
“We both create the same type of finished pieces,” Allen says, “but we divide some particular jobs up. I do a lot of marketing; she does the bulk of the bookkeeping. I’ll make all the paper; she does the casting. Then we’ll both do the finished work, though she sometimes makes the paper, and I’ll do some casting.”
Their sculpting methods, however, vary.
“If I’m sculpting a head,” Allen says, “I’ll take the head right off the sculpture and I’ll sculpt the head and add it back on. She likes to put the head on and finish while it’s on the sculpture.”
The Eckmans hope to take their method in new directions, but whatever directions they choose, it will definitely be influenced by their Lakota surroundings.
“When we moved here, I never realized how much this Lakota culture was going to impact my artwork,” Allen says. “The Plains Indian is really where I focus now. I love the Indian culture.”
To see more visit Eckman Fine Art online.