The Suffolk County Historical Society Showcases Work By Naturalist Dennis Puleston

Look at explorer and naturalist Dennis Puleston’s painting of an owl (whose eyes seem to bore right into you) and off in the corner, behind the delicate rendition of the bird, you will see a red barn. That is where furniture artist and craftsman David Ebner had his first studio.

“Puleson’s wife saw Ebner’s Rocking Horse, and he offered him the space,” says Kathryn Curran, Director of the Suffolk County Historical Society. And they are together again in an exhibition that runs through September 28, 2013.

As one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, Puleston, who passed away in 2001, had an immeasurable impact on conservation. Born on December 30, 1905 outside of London, he studied biology and naval architecture at London University, and ultimately settled in the United States, marrying Betty Wellington in 1939. He became an American citizen and served in World War II. After the war, Puleston was appointed the Director of Technical Information at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. It was here that he fell in love with the Island’s flourishing osprey population and wrote: “They were everywhere, repairing their huge stick nests on dead trees, utility poles and platforms erected especially for them. They even nested in the middle of towns and raised chick’s right along the highway, oblivious to traffic.”

Keeping detailed records of the osprey’s reproductive history over several years, Puleston noticed a large decline in population. He discovered that as osprey parents attempted to incubate their eggs, the weight of their bodies was crushing the chicks’ shells before hatching. Through his research he concluded that it was the result of pesticides, especially D.D.T.

Puleston and others filed a class action suit in New York State Supreme Court to force the Commission to stop using D.D.T. After presenting seven watercolors that he painted to illustrate how D.D.T. was destroying local wildlife, the Suffolk County Legislature banned the substance. As a result of Puleston’s labors, the amount of D.D.T. residues in the environment dropped and the osprey were saved.

Having won the battle of osprey preservation, he was able to focus on his passions of painting and writing about Long Island wildlife. And it shows in his work. There is a delicacy of color and intimacy of expression in the birds. The painstaking detail of bark and feather is the result of a true observer.

Bryan Roesch, of Riverhead, came to see the exhibit. “I hiked with him in the ’80s,” he says. “He could call birds out of the woods.”

“Toward the end of his life, he was going blind,” says his daughter, Jennifer Puleston. “His eyesight changed his technique as it diminished.”

From paintings of bark to the wood beneath, the love of nature informs the artists’ work. And that is also evident in the furniture and accessories crafted by David Ebner.

“I approach my art intuitively as well as intellectually,” he says, “drawing inspiration wherever I find it…each piece is treated as an art object with concern for my material and honesty to its inherent qualities.”

Educated at the prestigious School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, he realized that there could be “an artistic approach” to woodworking. Upon graduation, Ebner studied at London School of Furniture Design and after a two-year stint in the armed forces, he knew he wanted to pursue life as a full-time studio craftsman, moving into the red barn on Puleston’s property in 1973.

Ebner is now considered to be an integral part of the “studio craft” furniture movement. His astounding 4-foot-high carved onion captures the inner layers through the wood’s grain and his use of material highlights the organic curves and knots prominent in his furniture, bringing a lifelike quality to the chairs and tables. Daily-use items such as bowls, mirrors and candlesticks are elevated to artworks in his
interpretation.

Curran says, “The Puleston exhibit is hung as a salon, stuffed with birds. You can almost hear them. And then you walk into the Ebner room and it’s so Zen. It takes you to a completely different place. Whoosh! Both of these exhibits reflect an important aspect of the creative environmentalist right here in Suffolk County.”

More info at suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org

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