Farewell to a free spirit

Newport's Juergen Eckstein -- painter, sculptor, traveler, and community presence -- died Oct. 31 following a stroke

My first encounter with Juergen Eckstein came not long after I moved to the Coast. I was attempting to learn the art of pottery at a little do-it-yourself pottery shop in Nye Beach. Most of us were making rudimentary bowls or mugs or whatever was the latest trend in Pottery 101. In strolled Eckstein, balancing a large piece of plywood with a handful of ceramic faces gazing skyward. Even unfinished, those faces had a soulfulness that made them seem more than art.

Juergen Eckstein carved “Absence of Emptiness” out of a 16-foot chunk of redwood that had washed up on the beach years previously.  He worked on the sculpture from 2007 to 2012, when it was dedicated outside the Newport Visual Arts Center.  Photo by: Karen Pate
Juergen Eckstein carved “Absence of Emptiness” out of a 16-foot chunk of redwood that had washed up on the beach years previously. He worked on the sculpture from 2007 to 2012, when it was dedicated outside the Newport Visual Arts Center. Photo by: Karen Pate

Eckstein died Oct. 31 due to complications following a stroke. He was 77. His death has shadowed the Newport community accustomed to seeing him and his work around town — the driftwood sculptures outside the Performing Arts Center and Visual Arts Center, the paintings in shops and restaurants, the various pieces at For Artsake, the local artist co-op he co-founded. He’ll be remembered for his art, but equally so for the way he lived.

The German native liked beer, was passionate about the environment, eschewed medicine, and traveled the world with his family. He settled with his wife, Dianne, in Newport in 2000.

“I think he was just a really free spirit,” said Cynthia Jacobi, friend and fellow artist. “He always liked to say he was an unschooled autodidact. He had a unique way of looking at things.”

Jacobi isn’t sure when she met Eckstein, only that he’s one of those friends who seems to have always been part of her life. She does recall when she first got to know him. In 2004, Eckstein launched The Yellow Umbrella Project.

Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project” in 2004. “First individuals, forming trickles as others join creating streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow,” he wrote on his website. Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman
In 2004, Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project,” to create what he described as “streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow.” Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman

“Juergen’s idea was that people would get yellow umbrellas and start walking from wherever they lived or different places in Nye Beach and meet on the beach at a certain  time. And if you were looking from above, you would see all these rays of yellow all converging onto Nye Beach. All these people … just went to the beach with their umbrellas and said hello and went home. Everybody loved it.”

So much so, they urged Eckstein to make it an annual tradition.

“He said, ‘I only do things once. I don’t repeat,’” Jacobi recalled.

In 2013, Eckstein drove with friends to Burning Man, a temporary city dedicated to art and community that sets up annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. He took with him a 20-foot sculpture dubbed the Wolkenkuckkucksheim. In a feature in the Newport News-Times, Eckstein described Wolkenkuckkucksheim variously as “a place in the clouds where you feel at home, or it can refer to a place in the clouds where the world is at peace, or it can mean a man has his head in the clouds, meaning he’s a little bit nuts.”

Eckstein was also a painter, mixing paints from his own recipe, including gold flake, and painting with a small brush, Jacobi said.

Juergen Eckstein built “Wolkenkuckuckshein” (right) at Burning Man in 2013.  Photo courtesy: Jeff Ouderkirk.
Eckstein built the 20-foot tower “Wolkenkuckucksheim” (right) at Burning Man in 2013. Photo courtesy: Jeff Ouderkirk.

“He painted very slowly and wonderfully,” she said. “He was a deep thinker. He was a quiet man, but he had thoughts and it took time to hear his thoughts. He also had a very playful side and a dry sense of humor. When he wasn’t making art, he worked extensively in his garden, which is exquisite.”

And when he wasn’t making art, or sculpting his garden, or traveling the globe, Eckstein was probably thinking up something fun, like the golf competition held annually on the beach in the middle of winter.

Jeff Ouderkirk, a Newport lawyer and friend who accompanied Eckstein to Burning Man, was a regular competitor in the golf classic.

“Guests were invited to join him on the beach near his home with only a five iron to engage in the Surf Duffer Classic,” Ouderkirk said. “Juergen would get down to the beach a half an hour ahead of everybody, and stick these little flags in totally impossible places, behind logs, just impossible places.”

Detail from “Some However,” presented to the city by Juergen Eckstein in 2005. It is located on the grounds of the Newport Performing Arts Center. Photo by: Karen Pate
Detail from “Some However,” a sculpture Eckstein presented to the city in 2005. It is located on the grounds of the Newport Performing Arts Center. Photo by: Karen Pate

Eckstein made a traveling trophy for the event, Ouderkirk said, as well as an annual trophy, and “these were works of art. People took it seriously. If you lost the hole, you were required to tow the beverage cart to the next hole until the next person lost the hole. It made it great for everybody. This was followed by his wife Dianne’s famous chili at their home. A good time was invariably had by all.”

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 This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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