Watercolorist Don Eccleston still inspired at 84

Apocryphally, the Fountain of Youth is, well, water.

But maybe the alchemical secret to eternal vigor lies in watercolors - as in the painting technique.

It certainly works for Don Eccleston, a prolific 84-year-old artist from Uncasville whose fanciful watercolor canvasses have been familiar and popular at various local galleries and art shows for years - not to mention showings in Los Angeles and New York City. Just as meaningfully, Eccleston says the whole creative process is remarkably sustaining.

"Continuing to do art is very important to me, and it keeps me alive and energized," Eccleston says. "Painting is absolutely therapeutic. There's the satisfaction of making that color spread on a piece of paper. I don't rely on inspiration from the outside, although that happens, too. It all comes through what I've lived, through all the experiences I've had."

Eccleston is seated in the living room of his neat, sunny mobile home. Jazz music plays softly in the background, and Eccleston - an accomplished drummer who once considered a career as a jazz musician - speaks in a relaxed voice, though he holds a conga drum in front of him as "my security blanket."

The walls of Eccleston's home are covered with neatly framed examples of his work, not out of ego but simply as a matter of storage and, to be honest, they're very pleasant to look at.

The paintings typically feature bright colors and range in subject matter from futuristic realism to naturalist interpretation to all sorts of fantastical creatures - as though Winslow Homer collaborated with Ray Bradbury.

"I just start with drips and shapes and forms and colors," he says. "I just go with it; (it's very) stream of consciousness. I love that. If I drop some color on the paper, then I start to see an image and I create and all sorts of things come out of it and that's when it becomes exciting to me."

He laughs. "It might be insects of new types of humans ... six arms or four eyes ... and I have fun with it. It's like playing to me. The word 'whimsical' has been used a lot to describe my work. It's a good term because I do think there's a lot of whimsy. One of my heroes is Gary Larson (the cartoonist behind comic strip The Far Side). I like that dark humor - the idea of looking on the other side of humor."

A Connecticut native and retired art teacher who taught at Waterford High School, Eccleston planned on a music career. At 18, he left Connecticut for Hollywood and studied jazz drumming until the Korean War - where he served in the inaugural lineup of the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps. Comrades in that band introduced Eccleston to the world of drawing and fine arts and, after the war, he entered the Hartford Art School.

"Music and painting are interconnected, to me," he says. "I always listen to music when I work, usually jazz or contemporary classical. I can't imagine not hearing music while painting."

Originally, Eccleston worked in oils but a most unexpected real-life situation sent him in another direction. He had returned to California after art school and was living in a studio comprising a large main room and a small walk-in closet.

"I slept in the closet," he remembers, "and the smell of the oil paints and turpentine got to me. That's when I thought I'd try watercolors. It was a big struggle at first, but I stuck with it and eventually mastered the technique. It's really about controlling the water with just a little color. You learn to control it, and I found it to be a fun medium."

Even as he developed his technique and vision, Eccleston says he also learned a lot from his time teaching art to high school students.

"It's important to have a sense of humor because just trying to deal with that adolescent age was hilarious and tough," he says. "I began to see it was important to reach the kids. And I learned a lot from them, and many of the things in my paintings are from those associations."

Eccleston says he stays in touch with many of his old students and, similarly, though he's definitely among the older "regulars" in the vibrant New London art scene, he feels completely comfortable and accepted.

He says, "A lot of the younger artists in New London have told me they look up to me, and I'm very touched by that. They're very loving and I love that association. New London has been great to me in terms of the galleries and the Hygienic (Art Association)."

Eccleston pauses and thinks for a moment.

"You can't turn around in New London without running into an art gallery ... or a bar." He laughs. "That's a good balance for artists."


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