By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Bloomington, Illinois artist and musician Herb Eaton has a lot of passion. He’s passionate about music and plays jazz trombone. He’s passionate about art – all art, not just his own. He’s passionate about the ways that local art can help build a community. He’s passionate about nature and has a special attraction to the Mackinaw River Valley. But many people only know Herb’s work because of his passionate interest in the top crop in Central Illinois – corn.
Herb and wife Pamala are both natives of Central Illinois, born and raised in Peoria. They were among the first students to attend Illinois Central College when it opened its doors in the late 1960’s. In fact, Herb was the 50th student to register for classes. Eventually he ended up at Illinois State University where he completed both a BS and a MFA in sculpture and drawing.
Herb majored in music and theatre at ICC, but his focus gradually shifted from music to art. He had always been curious and loved making things. His Artist Statement says, “For 40 years, I have created and designed for myself, family, friends, and the community. I am a guy who likes to make things; usually utilitarian things….I also make art and music. My paintings, sculpture, and drawings reflect the scenes, stages and music that are emotionally important to me.”
Over the years, Herb took on lots of jobs that all involved creating something. He taught art, designed and built children’s museum exhibits and worked as a carpenter. But museum exhibits and carpentry require left-brain math and structure, and Herb found he was happiest when he could let his right-brain spirit flow freely. Eventually, he decided to focus on creating art and in 2000 Herb and Pam established the Eaton Studio and Gallery in historic downtown Bloomington, Illinois.
One of the common themes in Herb’s work is the way he includes the characters “He & She.” “He” is presented as a nude male while “She” is a diaphanously gowned female. They first appeared in a drawing in 1983. Herb explains, “Together, “He & She” form my dual muse, the masculine and feminine side of an artist. The Muses are the daughters of Memory (Mnemosyne): dance, poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, astronomy and history.” They appear together most of the time, but you may have to spend some time with the piece to find them both.
Another common subject is corn – corn plants, corn fields, ears of corn, even a fanciful Corn Maiden. Herb fell in love with the seemingly never-ending fields while delivering musical instruments to area schools, primarily along the Mackinaw River watershed. He describes the land as “the rolling pastoral prairie of Illinois, the vast interspace of wavy-grain, the productive belly-filler for the nation.” Fields of corn appear in a number of Herb’s paintings, in vertically hanging screens and in numerous stainless steel sculptures of corn stalks.
Even though Herb has given his right-brain the freedom to create, his left-brain training is always working in the background. When he creates a sculpture, he’s also planning how it will be supported. He says “the art and structure are intrinsic” and both come out together. A good example is the prairie-style supports for his corn screen painting and the corn maiden (pictured above).
When we arrived for the photo shoot, I looked at the sky and thought, “The clouds will make for an interesting sunset.” Herb looked at the sky and immediately said, “Great – there are contrails in the sky! I have a special connection to contrails.” As he later explained, he grew up near the Peoria Airport, so planes were a common sight. But he also frequently includes con-trails in his paintings. He wants the viewer to understand that the paintings depict modern times rather than an idealized past. “There’s not a horse and buggy in the picture,” he said.
You can see Herb’s paintings and sculptures at the Eaton Studio and Gallery at 411 N. Center Street in Bloomington, Illinois. The gallery is open Wednesdays from noon to 8:00 PM, most Saturdays from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, or by appointment. They also host “Gather @ the Gallery” events on the third Wednesday of the month from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM. The Eatons are also heavily involved in promoting art events with the “Around the Corner Artist Group” which includes a number of galleries all within easy walking distance.