CHAMPAIGN — Parkland College Art Gallery Director Lisa Costello describes artist Jack Ekstrom as modest and believes if he were more of an "operator," he'd be better known.
Ditto for Ekstrom's longtime friend and colleague, Don Lake, who describes his former office mate at Parkland as independent, saying he's always preferred a low profile.
Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find, particularly around here, an artist with a more confident hand and eye than Ekstrom, whose work will be shown in a retrospective opening Monday at the Parkland Art Gallery.
Lake considers Ekstrom "kind of the epitome of a draftsman, an artist who draws.
"I've never seen anyone his equal," he said. "He can see. He can get it on the page with such grace and a kind of authority that's quite rare.
"Most people who draw either miss it or struggle — it's a task of problem-solving. Jack sort of looks at the thing and see what's there and it kind of flows out of his fingers."
Ekstrom insists that he makes plenty of mistakes. He rubs them out or paints over them, considering them all part of the finished work.
Viewers likely will be hard-pressed to find flaws in the 24 works dating from the 1950s to just last week in "John Ekstrom in Retrospect: Paintings and Drawings."
Among them are loosely painted and drawn garden scenes featuring putti — chubby little boys, usually nude and sometimes winged — and beach scenes.
The ocean paintings sort of recall David Park, a pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative School of painting during the 1950s. But Ekstrom, 83, puts himself in a school on the opposite coast: the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
"I'm abstract, no matter what I do, whether I do realism or raw forms," he said. "It never bothered me that I could switch from one to another. That all comes from being influenced in the early '60s at the University of Illinois and afterward by the New York School."
Ekstrom, who grew up in Chicago, drew in a more realistic style as a kid. He remembers drawing from an early age; his favorite subjects then were trains, airplanes, movie stars and Chicago Bears football players.
As a boy, Ekstrom also was able to draw good likenesses of his relatives. He never took art lessons back then but did take art classes at Senn High School. He didn't learn anything and flunked those classes, dumbfounding his father, a physician. (His mother was a nurse; the couple divorced when Jack was in high school.)
"I just didn't work. I just wasn't a good student," Ekstrom said. "I didn't know how to study. I just limped along. I didn't get into trouble, but I didn't do anything stellar."
He was admitted to the UI, though, where he enrolled in engineering — "My parents thought I was a good little slide-rule person," he said.
After a year, he switched to art.
"I just saw the art students and how much fun they had and I was pretty good at that and thought, 'I'm in the wrong field,'" Ekstrom said.
After graduating in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in painting, Ekstrom married and joined the Air Force as a commissioned officer.
"I wanted to get into the Air Force in the worst way. I went to doctors to get my vision corrected so I could pass the flying test," he said.
The Air Force had other plans, putting Ekstrom in the Office of Special Investigations. He remembers going to work wearing a trench coat and carrying a briefcase.
He spent his first year as an investigator in his hometown of Chicago, doing mainly background checks on people who wanted to join the Air Force.
During his second year, Ekstrom went to OSI school in Washington, D.C. He called that one of the nicest times of his life because he lived only an hour from the ocean.
"Every weekend we would go out to play in the ocean and eat fish," he said.
After his honorable discharge, he returned to the UI on the GI Bill to work on a master of fine arts degree in painting. He received that in 1957.
After that, Ekstrom taught foundation courses at the UI for a while and then took a 10-year break of sorts, living in Paris and later Munich.
In Paris, Ekstrom shared a studio with Lee Chesney, a successful printmaker and professor he had met at the UI.
During his time in Europe, the fourth of Ekstrom's five sons was born.
"When we walked into restaurants, they would applaud, especially in Italy. They were very appreciative of Americans with big families," he said.
After Ekstrom and his family returned to the United States in 1973, he taught art for a year at the UI. He also began to send his work, mostly drawings, to shows that were mainly operated by printmakers.
Suddenly, though, things became tough. He wanted to continue teaching art, but jobs were scarce — as scarce as they are today, he said. Parkland was an up-and-coming school, so he talked to Juanita Gammon, who ran the art department.
In 1975, he began teaching art part-time at Parkland and four years later became full-time. He retired in 2001. His classroom subjects were painting, drawing, two-dimensional design and life drawing — that being his "signature course."
"Because I can draw the figure," he said. "I don't have to sit all the time to look at the figure."
Lake, who does mainly landscapes, admires Ekstrom's skill in figurative art.
"He's particularly interested in figures; even his inanimate objects like the little putti are figures. It's an ongoing thing in his work," Lake said.
Besides having taught at Parkland, Ekstrom curated two exhibitions for the Parkland Art Gallery: "Artists Who Teach," in 1991, and a "Drawing Invitational" in 1998.
The latter showcased a variety of work and unexpected media, from tar to torn paper, and challenged the notion of what constitutes a drawing, Costello said.
But Ekstrom considers himself foremost a teacher. His influence remains evident at Parkland, where paintings by former students, including a portrait of Ekstrom, are on display.
The Parkland permanent collection also owns a large oil painting on canvas by Ekstrom of downtown Champaign. It's displayed in the D wing and raises a lot of comments from viewers during tours, Costello said.
Though retired, Ekstrom continues to teach, in a way.
"He asks good questions at our receptions, so he's constantly keeping us on our toes," Costello said.
She curated the retrospective — with Ekstrom, who has "definite opinions, in a good way," she noted.
On view through March 26, the exhibition showcases how fluid Ekstrom is with oil, acrylic, graphite, pastel, Prismacolor pencil and gouache, Costello said.
She also was impressed with how Ekstrom continues his art practice at his home studio near the Chester Street Bar in Champaign. (Ekstrom also likes to travel, ice skate and go downhill skiing.)
"He also travels to California and does work there," Costello said. "There's a kind of energy and fervor in his work. When you see it all together you really see the mark of the maker, whether it's his abstract work or more literal work. And the color is phenomenal.
"He's very expressive and confident in his work, and I think you can really see that in his drawings and paintings."
If you go
What: "John Ekstrom in Retrospect: Paintings and Drawings," a retrospective of work by Ekstrom, an artist and retired Parkland College art instructor who lives in Champaign
When: Monday through March 26, with the artist's reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, a gallery talk by Ekstrom at 7 p.m. and live music by the Parkland Guitar Ensemble (Ekstrom also will give a lecture at 1:15 p.m. Feb. 19 in the gallery)
Where: Parkland Art Gallery, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C
Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays; and noon to 2 p.m. Saturdays (closed March 22-23 for Parkland's spring holiday)
Information: 351-2485; http://artgallery.parkland.edu/