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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 11:59 pm

The gifts of Grace

art1422
Grace Eckert’s show runs through Dec. 11
Photo by Job Conger

Danville native Grace Eckert didn't take art classes in high school, even though she knew she was going to be an artist. Her father, a math professor at Illinois State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, insisted on classes that would pay off for her as an adult. "He was a formidable man, though he's a pussycat now," she says. "In fact, I had to move to Australia, when I was 20, before I could start painting." Her first focus in the Land Down Under was watercolors, a medium that remains more than a hobby but not her metier.

Eckert spent 20 years outside the U.S., including 11 years in England, before settling in Petersburg. Between long stretches away from her home shores, she managed to live stateside long enough to graduate with a fine-arts degree from ISU, majoring in painting. "I started out as an elementary-education major," she says, "but the experiences I had early on in art classes convinced me to change tracks."

Her discovery of fabric as an art medium came while she was living in a Third World country. "I ran out of paint, and there was no place, in the country, to buy paint. I started using ripped-up fabrics to weave with," she says. "I had learned how to do tapestries at ISU, so when I moved to England, I switched to yarn. It holds the dyes better than rags." For 13 years, Eckert wove tapestries that were displayed all over Europe. In 1987, she discovered her true gift: producing hand-tufted loop-pile textiles. She produced close to 80 there before making the trek to Petersburg in 1990. Her studio, behind her home, was a "wedding present" from her husband, Dr. Michael Wiant, director of the Dickson Mounds Museum.

The technique involves mechanically pushing commercially produced wool rug yarn through a cloth base, the same technique used to make rugs. Hundreds of colors go into most creations, which may run as large as eight by 10 feet and weigh close to 80 pounds. The handheld electric tufting tool she uses, which makes quite a racket in her studio, works "something like a sewing machine," she says. Noise-suppressing earmuffs, like those worn around jet planes by mechanics, are a must. A three-by-five-foot "rug" requires a week to complete. When she's had her fill of noise, Eckert paints watercolors.

Because of her technique and the sturdiness of the materials, Eckert says, all of her creations can be walked on and cleaned, but most people regard them as wall hangings.

Eckert finds inspiration in the natural surroundings outside her home, although she will accept a commission for any subject. She sells her creations at craft fairs. Because so many of her works sell quickly, Eckert has rarely had enough for a gallery showing. In fact, a current exhibit of 23 of Eckert's wall hangings at the Springfield Art Association's Edwards Place represents her first as a solo artist in central Illinois.

A reception for Eckert will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, at Edwards Place. At 2 p.m. Oct. 16, Eckert will present a slide lecture about her creations and technique. Both events are free and open to the public.

Grace Eckert's show Perceptions of Place runs through Dec. 11. The Springfield Art Association, 700 N. Fourth St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.

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