Mark Eberhard | Bird Calling

Mark Eberhard portrays his beloved avian subjects in spare, modern compositions

By Norman Kolpas

Mark Eberhard, Wood Ducks, oil, 24 x 36.

Mark Eberhard, Wood Ducks, oil, 24 x 36.

This story was featured in the February 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

Against a deeply brooding background, an assortment of feathered creatures impeccably rendered in oils—a northern spotted owl perched on a broken branch, a brown pelican in flight, and an ivory-billed woodpecker contemplating a jagged tree trunk—are all in the process of disappearing from a 60-by-60-inch canvas. The fact that only one of the birds appears in its entirety in the wittily titled ON THE EDGE might seem odd to viewers at first—until an inscription in almost ghostly letters across the top draws attention. A quote from “Sunday Morning” by the poet Wallace Stevens, it reads: “But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more, where then is paradise?”

In a heartbeat, this important work by Mark Eberhard shifts profoundly into focus, not just visually but also intellectually and emotionally. It reveals itself as a meditation on the fleeting beauty of birds, and on an environment and a planet that more and more people fear may be imperiled. And those words at the top of the piece not only underscore the inherent meaning of the work, but they also add satisfying balance to its overall design, subtly counterpointing and even anchoring other visual elements that might otherwise threaten, both literally and figuratively, to fly away.

Now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, the painting perfectly captures the characteristics that have made Ohio-based Eberhard a modern master of what he calls “nature art, done in a very photorealistic style, with contemporary compositions all based on my training as a graphic designer.” Asked to be more specific on his subject matter, the soft-spoken 66-year-old offers, “I would say that 90 percent of what I paint are birds, and then mammals”—a modest acknowledgement of the fact that growing numbers of collectors and institutions consider him one of the finest avian artists of our day.

Birds have been an integral part of Eberhard’s life since his earliest days. His grandmother and his uncle, who was confined to a wheelchair by polio, were avid bird-lovers, attracting local species to a feeder near the back door of their home. When Mark was 5, his grandparents gave him “a little 6-by-8-inch Golden Book with 118 different illustrations of birds.” He remembers his mother telling the story of how young Mark would go into his room to draw the birds in that book, “and she would scold me for tracing. But she soon realized that I wasn’t tracing them but was somehow able to make my drawings look just like the birds.”

Mark Eberhard, Autumn Angler, oil, 58 x 58.

Mark Eberhard, Autumn Angler, oil, 58 x 58.

Subjects other than feathered ones, however, obsessed him even more back then. “It was more about cowboys and Indians and football players,” he recalls. “I’d draw these sort of storyboards on long, skinny rolls of paper.” But he never dreamed of becoming an artist, even though he continued to excel at every aesthetic effort. Starting in junior high, he took summer classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum. In high school, he says, “I explored a variety of different mediums: silkscreen, woodblock printing, sculpture, ceramics, as well as lots of painting.”

Keenly aware that he needed to somehow make a living, he enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1972 with a bachelor of science degree in design. During those intense undergraduate years, he found that his longtime interest in birds offered a welcome respite. “It sounds funny,” he says, “but I found that taking moments out to just watch the birds outside the window relaxed 
me and helped me have a sharper focus when I went back to my schoolwork.”

He also discovered a new intellectual passion and discipline in Swiss principles of design. First evolving after World War II and influenced by earlier movements including De Stijl, Constructivism, and Bauhaus, the exquisitely understated approach emphasized such qualities as simplicity, functionality, and a pleasing asymmetry inspired in part by Japanese aesthetics. Eberhard’s compelling interest in Swiss design ultimately led him to pursue his studies further by enrolling in 1974 in the graphic-design program at the Yale University School of Art. “I also took my love of birds with me to Yale,” he continues, “where I wanted to design a bird book, based on the Swiss principles of design, as my master’s thesis. But I couldn’t get the project approved. I suppose at the time it seemed too common an undertaking.”

Nonetheless, in 1976 Eberhard graduated from Yale with a master of fine arts in graphic design, having refined his graphic skills while also deepening his grasp of color dynamics and its role in design. “To this day,” he says, “I use what I learned there when I mix my colors.”

He returned to Ohio and in 1977 formed the Cincinnati-based design firm of Zender + Eberhard with Mike Zender, a friend and fellow Yale grad. Both men loved the creative side of the job but disliked marketing themselves. So, to handle that side of the business, they hired a smart, outgoing woman named Alice. She and Mark soon fell in love, married, and formed their own design firm. The marriage still flourishes 36 years later, with three grown children.

Mark Eberhard, Red Fox in Snow, oil, 24 x 33.

Mark Eberhard, Red Fox in Snow, oil, 24 x 33.

Their husband-and-wife design business thrived for many years, too, with a distinguished client roster including banks, museums, private schools, and charitable institutions. But during those early years of parenthood, Mark also felt himself increasingly compelled to paint the birds he’d always loved. “After everybody went to bed,” he says, “I’d go downstairs in the basement, behind the furnace, and paint from 10 at night until 2 in the morning, Sunday through Thursday.”

His artistic aspirations were bolstered by one of his clients, Ohio-based wildlife artist John A. Ruthven. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the collectible print market was booming, and the Eberhards’ firm was hired to design promotional materials for Ruthven’s prints, including magazine ads, brochures, and catalogs. “He was incredibly successful,” Eberhard says. “I got to go out to his studio to meet with him, and I thought that what he was doing was what I wanted to do.”

So Eberhard continued his late-night sessions at the easel, gradually building up a large group of works to show. Around the mid-1980s, he entered a local art competition, winning first place. He had his first big solo show at The Carnegie, an arts venue not far from Cincinnati in Covington, KY, in 1993.

In 1996, Eberhard was invited to participate in the first year of the prestigious Great American Artists show, which enjoyed a 10-year lifespan at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Also there was renowned illustrator and wildlife artist Charley Harper, another Cincinnatian, whom the Eberhards had long admired. As Alice relates, “When Charley saw Mark’s work for the first time, he just stared and stared and stared at it. Then he slowly turned to Mark, eyes wet, and said, ‘Don’t ever let anyone make you compromise.’” And Eberhard has held fast to that advice, even as his renown has grown and he’s gradually transitioned away completely from design work.

Select any one of his paintings today, and you’ll find a wealth of uncompromising qualities to savor. Take, for example, THE ENTERTAINER. Recently acquired by the Buffalo Bill Center’s Whitney Western Art Museum in Cody, WY, the 40-by-40-inch oil presents a quintet of ravens against a pale blue background that subtly resonates with the iridescence of their feathers. The one bird referred to by the title raucously announces his arrival from the top-left corner of the scene, while the other four perch on a barren branch. The piece, Eberhard notes, had its start in the graphic possibilities he saw in that particular branch. “When Alice and I are out hiking or driving down the road, I’ll see a tree branch or some other piece of nature and immediately realize it’s a painting,” he says. He’ll immediately stop and capture digital images.

Eventually, to make a painting, he’ll combine such reference images with thumbnails from “big sketchbooks I keep that are full of ideas.” He manipulates those on a computer monitor until he reaches a composition that pleases him. Next, Eberhard says, “I start drawing everything, first on paper, and then I transfer the drawing either to a Masonite board for smaller pieces or canvas for larger ones.” Then, usually working from background to foreground, he’ll complete the painting in a few thin layers of oil that endow it with an almost ethereal translucency. Often he’ll employ very fine brushes to capture the birds in ultra-realistic detail—although lately, he says, he’s been “loosening up a bit, and I think my paintings are getting more character and visual excitement.”

Mark Eberhard, The Texans, oil, 36 x 84.

Mark Eberhard, The Texans, oil, 36 x 84.

That’s certainly true of THE TEXANS, an impressive 3-foot-by-7-foot canvas Eberhard recently shipped off for the inaugural Fredericksburg Art Auction in early May, which is a collaboration between Astoria Fine Art in Jackson, WY, one of the galleries representing him, and InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX. Invited to participate in what promises to be a landmark event for collectors and artists alike, Eberhard thought it would be fun and challenging to create something appropriately themed to the Lone Star State, a painting dramatically different from the 90 percent of his works devoted to birds.

So Alice found an Ohio farm that raises longhorn cattle, and they visited and photographed its herd of some 80 head. Back in his home studio in the peaceful Cincinnati suburb of Terrace Park, Eberhard worked up a bold design featuring eight longhorns against a brilliant yellow background. And then he exuberantly added a profusion of other official state symbols, including bluebonnets, prickly pear cacti, and monarch butterflies. And, of course, the painting also features a mockingbird.

Eberhard sees no end to the inspiration that his avian subjects provide. “I have never met or seen a bird that I didn’t find fascinating,” he says. “It’s the pure and varied design of birds; the absolutely amazing and varied colorations, shapes, and sizes; their interesting and varied behaviors; and just the wonderful way they make me feel to look at them and paint them.” His enthusiasm leads him, as it did in his stunning painting of vanishing bird species, to sum it all up with a quote from another poet, this time Emily Dickinson: “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Hueys Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Row House Gallery, Milford, OH.

Featured in the February 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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