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Remembering David Esterly

“It seems to me that these straps are like the unavoidable permanent qualities of life—birth, death, body, mind, pleasure, pain— and then in those permanencies, we stuff our little impermanent biographical things.”

— David Esterly


Remembering David Esterly

David Esterly, the acclaimed woodcarver, sculptor, and author, passed away last month on June 15, 2019. He was 75 years old. Esterly will forever be commemorated as an artist whose work elevated the technical precision and aesthetic beauty of woodcarving. After being deeply inspired by the work of Grinling Gibbons in London during the late ’70s, Esterly pursued the art of wood sculpture with a fervent passion. While he worked meticulously–creating roughly 50 pieces in his lifetime–the precision and detail of each of his artworks were beyond compare.

Esterly’s piece featured in State of the Art (2014) (on the right).

Esterly was also featured in the museum’s 2014-15 exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. In Quodlibet #1 (the artwork that was featured in the exhibition), Esterly recreated the form of a “letter rack” painting, a nineteenth-century tradition favored by American artists. The letter rack’s straps hold a variety of objects according to the whims of the user, reminding one of a wall-bound scrapbook. Esterly’s carving includes such twenty-first-century devices as an iPhone and a digital camera. A curtain obscuring the right side of the composition seems poised to close at the tug of a rope, suggesting the impermanence of all things.


About His Final Work

“Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack” (2019) was Mr. Esterly’s last work. David Esterly Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack, 2017-2019 Limewood 42 in. × 46 1/4 in. × 7 5/8 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2019.17

Esterly’s final work, Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack, was commissioned by Crystal Bridges and was completed by Esterly in 2019. The piece contains several objects on a similar “letter rack” that were a reflection of the life of Dr. Neil Compton including a camera, log book, a map of Crystal Spring, and a “Save the Buffalo River” banner.


Who Was Dr. Compton?

Dr. Neil Compton

Dr. Neil Ernest Compton (1912-1999) of Bentonville is widely recognized as the founder of the Ozark Society to Save the Buffalo River. He was also a talented author and photographer who won many awards for his conservation efforts.

Compton owned a parcel of land near downtown Bentonville that included the historic Crystal Spring area south of the museum. In 1978, Compton sold this parcel of land to the Walton family, and Crystal Spring and the hillside where he cultivated native plants have subsequently become part of Crystal Bridges’ 120-acre grounds. To learn more about Dr. Compton, visit our previous blog here.


When Will The Artwork Be On View at Crystal Bridges?

Dr. Compton’s Letter Rack will be on view at Crystal Bridges beginning on July 26. It will be located in the Niche, a corner of the Early American Art Gallery that can be found behind the “We The People” artwork at the beginning of the gallery.



Enjoy this recent CBS Sunday Morning interview with Esterly, which aired at the beginning of June 2019.


“I’ve lived my life by the connection between brain and hand. And now, I’m ending it by precisely that connection being snatched away from me. So, to me, there’s something richly meaningful about that.” – David Esterly


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