After falling asleep at the wheel, slamming his car into a bridge and having his body peeled out in critical condition, local artist Randy Eckels was lucky to be alive.
Released from the hospital and wheelchair-bound, Eckels was taken in by three hometown friends, colloquially known as the “Oklahoma Mafia.” The group did not charge Eckels rent, instead paying him to cut, shape and craft jewelry. In 1976, the friends set up stands at the 23rd Street Artists’ Market, and Eckels has been selling necklaces, earrings and belt buckles there since.
Eckels said the customers and market vendors have developed a tight-knit community. A few days ago, a woman approached him wearing a ring she had purchased from him 25 years ago and hadn’t taken off since. Another couple returned to tell him they used his jewelry as wedding rings.
“We love each other.” Eckels said. “We’re all talented and all a little bit eccentric — which is polite for crazy.”
Before he moved to Austin, Eckels was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, where he was involved in illegal anti-war movements, dealing false identification cards to men avoiding the Vietnam draft. After narrowly escaping an encounter with the FBI, Eckels got a job in construction and in 1975 moved to Austin, where he’s seen the market grow and decay for 40 years.
“It has almost died,” Eckels said. “We have a big problem with people doing drugs in the back. My heart goes out to the homeless people, but it scares our new artists, and they don’t come back.”
Now 64, Eckels said he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon and wants to revitalize the market to what it once was.
“That rocking chair will kill you,” Eckels said. “As long as I’ve got my fingers, I’ll be working until I drop.”