WABASHA — It started with buttons.
Roughly 25,000 pieces later, Preston Cook’s collection of eagle art — from fine art by Andy Warhol and John J. Audubon to images on beer cans or comic books — is getting its first days in the public eye.
The collection, donated to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, is being jointly shown at the Eagle Center and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. The exhibition represents the first public viewing of Cook’s collection.
“I’m really pleased I’m able to share my collection finally and in such a fine institution as the Minnesota Marine Art Museum,” Cook said. “I can see it for the first time the way it should be shown.”
Through Oct. 14, the Eagle Center is showcasing about 40 items from the collection in its Eagles Everywhere exhibit. The MMAM’s exhibit, also through Oct. 14, has 236 items on display.
Rolf Thompson, executive director of the Eagle Center, said that what you’ll see at the two Mississippi River institutions is the tip of the iceberg for what the collection can be.
“The possibilities from the collection for exhibits are endless,” he said. “We’ll be able to do a whole exhibit on the eagle and military uniforms or the eagle and official government documents. When you see how it can be presented and what the eagle has meant throughout American history, it’s really amazing.”
Cook is writing a book — due out this fall — about his collection. It looks at eagle art in several categories, focusing on 1,300 pieces out of the still-growing 25,000-piece collection.
That book, said Dave Casey, assistant curator at the MMAM, was the basis for how the Winona museum put together its exhibit. There are examples of high art such as the Warhol or an eagle sculpture by John Bellamy.
There are commercial products that use the eagle’s image as part of their product identity. Popular art such as comics, political art, the eagle in military art and iconography are all themes from Cook’s book that helped shape the exhibit.
“Once we knew what themes we wanted, they gave us free reign of the whole collection,” Casey said. Still, with 25,000 items it was easy to get overwhelmed in all things eagle. “Once we narrowed down the topics, it was easy to pull out the pieces we wanted.”
Cook said his collection began when he was drafted into the Army more than 50 years ago. The first items in his collection? The eagle buttons on his dress uniform. He still uses those buttons today on the blue blazer he wears.
“It was originally just a thing to collect. It had no more meaning than just any item to collect,” he said.
But a line from a movie, “A Thousand Clowns” starring Jason Robards, said, “You can’t have too many eagles.” Inspired, Cook took that line and ran with it.
“It’s been a 50-year mission to add to the collection,” Cook said. That mission has led to valuable works of art, and pieces of Americana ephemera. “I have some very valuable items, but the next day I’ll buy a three-dollar postcard. My goal has been to show how eagles are part of our culture, our history and our heritage. It’s like a giant puzzle on how eagles fit into our lives.”
Thompson said he saw one of those puzzle piece moments a few years ago when he was showing part of the exhibit — still in storage — to a group of Purple Heart veterans in Wabasha.
He showed a recruiting poster for the Army Air Corps circa 1939 to some World War II veterans. The poster shows some P-35 fighter planes in formation, with one of the planes replaced by an eagle. The poster spurred a conversation about the message of the poster and the image of the bird.
“We talked about the symbolism of the eagle and how it would motivate the 18-year-old guy to join the Army Air Corps,” Thompson said. “This collection will connect with everybody in some way.”
Cook, who spent most of his adult life living in or near San Francisco, said when he donated the collection to the Eagle Center, he and his wife moved to Wabasha. Now, eagles are a common sight.
Still, he’s always inspired by the birds.
“I’m still excited every time I see an eagle,” Cook said. “I never hesitate to watch the eagle until I can’t see it any longer.”