A photograph captured Don Ealy crouching by a window, a small grandson close by, heads together. The little fellow’s eyebrows are up, his eyes wide as he listens to his grandpa’s soft voice describing the world of birds outside the glass. His attention is riveted as he receives a glimpse of the world as seen through his grandfather’s eyes.
Don Ealy’s remarkable vision and talent for conveying it onto canvas will forever speak to those who view his work. The Spirit Lake artist died of colon cancer in December. He was 69.
Born and educated in Spokane, Ealy was the oldest child in the family of Claude and Agnes McGrath. Claude was a well-known sports leader in Spokane, so Ealy had ample opportunity to develop an active interest in all kinds of activities. His younger brother Dick died at 15, so he and his sister Carol have enjoyed an especially close relationship throughout the years.
When Ealy was 12, a neighbor gave him some art lessons as a birthday present. A whole new world opened up as his innate talent found direction. His mentor and teacher, famed artist Herman Keys, would be heard to say, “The boy draws like an angel,” even as he sighed with regret over Ealy’s more frivolous youthful excursions.
Ealy’s exuberance and love of life won him many lifelong friends as he went through Lewis and Clark High School. He spent some time in college, at Eastern Washington and Washington State, but obtained his true education traveling through the world. He served two years in the Navy, traversing the Pacific aboard the USS Ticonderoga. Then he attended private art schools in the United States and abroad. Notably, he spent a year in Malaga, Spain, where he studied the techniques of the old Spanish masters of impressionism.
The family had a cabin on Spirit Lake, so much of their youthful summers were spent enjoying the water and small-town camaraderie. Ealy met Mike Alward at the lake, whose family had been Spirit Lake residents since 1926. Eventually Mike introduced Ealy to his younger sister, Mary, who was a Spokane nurse. They dated a few times before Ealy took off to study and work in Spain. Romantic soul that he was, he wrote frequent, long lovely letters to Mary. She can recall having written him only once. Nevertheless, not long after his return wedding plans commenced. They were the first couple to be married in the “new” St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Spirit Lake in August of 1965.
They were blessed with three sons – Michael, Gregory and Patrick. In 1967 they moved into the Alward family home in Spirit Lake, where Ealy established a sign-painting business. Examples of his unique signs, some sandblasted, are still evident in the community. Always he returned to his studio to practice his fine art, with subjects from the whimsical to the somber, and about the time computers took over the sign-painting industry he was launching into the world of fine art, gaining a following and some satisfaction with his own work. When he wasn’t painting he was taking photographs, reading or playing one of several musical instruments he had mastered. Music fed his soul, and he had a special love for his violins and acoustical guitars.
Never one to take himself too seriously, he was far from the typified “temperamental artist.” Mary says of him, “He was the easiest person to live with – he made no demands and was just happy with home.” She says they were lucky – both of them got to do what they loved in life. Often, when she worked the evening shift she would arrive home to find him still up and painting in his studio. His sense of humor was never far beneath the surface, a continual source of joy for family and friends.
He spent a lot of time playing with and teaching his boys while they were growing up. Fishing, swimming, water-skiing, tennis, baseball – ad infinitum. He was their biggest fan when they began to play on school teams. Later, when they began to pursue their professional educations, he would read books about their chosen fields – law, electrical and chemical engineering. For a man who “didn’t know how to do much,” Mary says that he could and did teach himself whatever he needed to know to be a top-notch home handyman.
The Ealy home has always been filled with the products and stimuli of creativity, with paintings, books, crafts and music evident everywhere. Michael describes his dad as “intellectually curious.” He explains, “What I mean by that is that my dad was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including history, philosophy, politics and religion. He wasn’t just interested in his own opinions, he was interested in the opinions of others and liked to explore these through friendly debates. Some of my best memories of my dad are just sitting around the kitchen table and discussing issues ranging from the history of war to global warming. My dad always seemed interested in what I had to say, even if he didn’t agree.” Ealy did not mind playing devil’s advocate if it would stimulate a more open discussion. No topic was taboo. Greg says it was a very liberal, open-minded way to grow up, which he appreciates even more now that he is a father himself.
Ealy was a prolific painter, producing hundreds of works that were featured primarily in the ArtSpirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene and the Christopher Queen Gallery in California, where he was a “treasured artist” for more than 20 years. His favorite subjects were workboats on the coast, musicians and pastoral pieces with draft horses and cattle. But anything was fair game. Now commanding prices well into the four figures, a number of collectors have 30 or more of his pieces. One boasts 56 D.A. Ealy paintings currently owned.
While his loss is deeply felt, the world will continue to rejoice in his work, each a deeply intuitive rendering of our culture as seen through the eyes, heart and talent of Don Ealy.
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