An Interview with Eleanor Dickinson, 2005
From the Director: Sam Yates:
The University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery is honored to present Enduring: the Social Conscience of Eleanor Dickinson as the first exhibition of the 2005-2006 academic year.
A Knoxville native, Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson grew up in a Victorian home on Circle Park Drive, near the current location of the Frank H. McClung Museum on the University of Tennessee campus. One of the first graduates of the Fine Arts Curriculum at the University of Tennessee, Dickinson has established herself as one of the nation’s outstanding figurative artists.
Dickinson has lived and worked in San Francisco, California, for more than 50 years but has always remained in close contact with her friends and family in the Knoxville area. In fact, some of her best-known work was derived from experiences in East Tennessee and its surrounding communities.
Enduring: the Social Conscience of Eleanor Dickinson is a selective retrospective, as it includes work from the early-1950s to the present. Throughout the years, Dickinson’s commitment to the human figure, revealed through her superb draughtsmanship and her compassion for humanity, remains paramount. Answers from Eleanor Dickinson to Questions from Sam Yates, Director of the Downtown Gallery, the University of Tennessee.
#1 “Growing up in Knoxville during the 1930s and 1940s was, no doubt, a very different experience from that of today’s youth living in East Tennesseee. What are some of your childhood memories?”
Knoxville in the 1930’s was a very different place from today. I was born on my parents’ second anniversary; the Great Depression and I arrived around the same time, 1931, and my father’s law practice was temporarily affected so we moved back into my mother’s former home at 1007 Circle Park. There we lived for many years with my grandfather, my grandmother, my unmarried great- aunt and one live-in servant plus my nurse and other help that arrived daily. The Queen Ann Victorian house had 30 rooms, two towers, 3 porches and a porte cochere to a teardrop shaped driveway that arched one side of the house. There on an acre of land was a smaller house in the back yard with three rooms for servants, which was converted to garages as the family got more cars. Life was fairly formal on the surface; my brother Bob was born a year later, my brother Richard and sister Louise were born some years later. We ate dinner in the elegant dining room at night but other meals Bob and I had in the kitchen. Sometimes I would go “calling” with my grandmother and Aunt Mary Atkins in her big car. I sat on a small “jump-seat” in back of the chauffeur while the two ladies sat in back and gossiped. I wore small white gloves and had my own small calling cards to leave at the houses we visited from 11 to 12 AM and 4 to 5:30 PM. Sometimes Gram and I went calling on her. Aunt Mary had a big house with tall white columns circling the front porch on Main Street next to the First Baptist Church and across from the big marble Main Post Office downtown. She raised Great Danes; the police had to keep bringing back puppies from all around town. At our house we had lots of pets: dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, birds, turtles and even twelve mallard ducks Mother had raised that followed her all around the yard like their Mother Duck.
Our house was very spooky with long dark passageways and landings of the two stairs, high ceiling rooms with passageways between the walls. If I had to get up at night it was agony to go along the corridor, down some steps to a dark cold marble bathroom. I mostly played out in the yard or skated with the other kids in the neighborhood. Some of the kids were black from down the hill; when you got older your mother said you couldn’t play with Sam or Sarah anymore, but you didn’t know why. The street car tracks ran on the street beside our house; mother would catch the car to go shopping downtown. After dinner we sat on the front porch and Daddy smoked his cigar. If you tried to talk he got mad and went inside to his room. They said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” If you tried to talk at dinner about what you learned at school, you got told how that was all wrong. If you tried to say what the teacher told you, you were asked, “Did you ever learn anything by talking?” so you didn’t talk much.
In front of the house was Circle Park, which all the nine houses on the Circle owned in common; we could go play there on some big white rocks. Matthew McClellan lived across the Park and Edwin Carey Thomas was two houses away. There were Civil War trenches in back of the Hudson’s house next door. Bob found a cannon ball in our back yard.
#2 “How supportive of your talents and, eventually, your decision to become a practicing artist was your entire family?”
My mother and grandmother were happy that I liked to draw; they said I was an artist. Mother told me that when I was very little I had painted the cat red because I got tired of her always being gray. I drew on everything I could and kept reading “Stories of the Youth of Artists” to find out how they did art. My grandmother Ellen Bolli painted, as did her sister Evelyn. When she was young in the 1890’s my grandmother had gone to the University of Chicago to study art; she majored in carpentry and furniture design, a strange choice for a Southern lady. Many of her pieces of carved furniture were in the house: they were all black. She built and carved them in white oak wood and then “fumed” the pieces which turned them black. Gram was very active in the Knoxville (Nicholson) Art League and was President in 1910. My grandfather Walter Van Gilder owned the Van Gilder Glass Company but didn’t like business much. At the end of the day after the Dutch workmen (his family was Dutch) left he would go down and make stained glass windows. I still have three of them; he gave many away to churches in the area. One of his windows in clear glass is in our former cabin in Elkmont. Both grandparents were part of the Arts and Crafts movement. All of that side of the family, especially Gram, were very pleased that I wanted to be an artist. However, one day my father caught Bob trying to play a violin he had found and Dad broke it and said no son of his was going to be a sissy. It was OK for me to do art because I was a girl and didn’t count. One day he cried because I got all A’s and said it wasn’t right for a girl to make grades like that.
My family thought it was fine to do art but it should be of beautiful, inspirational things. When I came back home in 1965 to have a Solo Show at the McClung Museum next door I showed them the pictures we were going to hang there. They were all nudes of males and females. My mother cried every day saying, “You’ll disgrace the family!”
When I was in my teens I would sneak off and go draw the farmers and their produce at Market Square, or the wrestling matches on Gay Street with “Gorgeous George” and “The Yellow Peril;” I drew the men having cock fights under the Gay Street bridge and sneaked into the “blue light” tent at the County Fair to draw the people watching the strippers. Sometimes her friends told my grandmother that they saw me drawing at the Market so she got very mad at me. She said ladies didn’t do that. She also thought that art must be of beautiful things. I heard a relative cooing at her baby girl saying, “Don’t frown like that – you’ll never get a husband that way.”
#3 “I understand that you attended an all-girl high school in Washington, DC. What effect did this considerably more metropolitan environment have on you as a person and as an aspiring artist?”
My grandmother paid for me to have lots of extra art lessons and then for me to go to the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. which had a good art program. Living in Knoxville I had always felt like an outsider looking on at the world. When I got to the Cathedral School I found out that the world was full of people like me! I didn’t have to pretend to be stupid because I was a girl: I could think for myself and draw what I wanted to! They took us to museums, to opera, to concerts, to plays: it was wonderful! I always liked the figure drawings and paintings best: Rembrandt, Goya, Holbein, Caravaggio, the Bellows fight paintings. The only woman artist I knew of was Vigee Le Brun; a picture of her art hung on my wall.
#4 “C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing arrived at the University of Tennessee in 1947, where he laid the foundation for the visual arts curriculum. Upon returning to Knoxville and enrolling as an undergraduate at the university, what was the artistic climate of the time and what was it like to be a student in the newly formed Department of Fine Arts?”
I wanted to go to Wellesley and even sneaked out and took the College Board Exams so that I could, but my family wouldn’t pay for it and insisted I go to the University of Tenn., which was starting a new Art Dept. U.T. was a block away and the family thought it was foolish to go away from home any more. So several others and I went as the first regular art class at U.T. Several boys had already started in the spring: Grady Kimsey and Robert Birdwell. “Buck” Ewing was very exciting to work with and I loved his art – he said it was the “Ashcan School” which sounded great to me. We did everything for the first time; we even holding a “Beaux Arts Ball.” I did an upside down room and nailed all the furniture to the ceiling. He started an Art Auction to benefit the program and encouraged me to collect art I liked which I still do.
For the first two years in the Art Dept. you had to learn everything: bronze casting, printmaking, painting, commercial art, calligraphy. After that you signed up for whatever you wanted to do and turned in three works at the end of the Semester to get your grades. You couldn’t get advice or a critique, had no other advice but your own opinion; as a result no one painted like the teacher: Buck or Joe Cox or George Cress. We tried to find a freshman that would tell us what had been said about our work when they talked about it to the new students. The only thing lacking in the new Dept. was art history: there were no slides, books, projectors, etc. We had nude models for the first two years, then the U.T. Trustees found out and were very upset: said they had to have some covering at least. The next day the models showed up in pasties, g-strings, straps: all of a sudden they looked obscene but never had before. Buck Ewing was a marvelous role model: he valued the intensity of our commitment – and most of us from those first years are still in the art field. He was very enthusiastic about my work and got me to apply for the Fulbright and a job in New York after France. However, one time I heard him talking about me saying he wasn’t sure I would stick to it. Most girls at that time just wanted to get married, dropped out of school, only wanted to be a wife and mother.
#5 “Shortly after graduating ftom UT, you married Wade Dickinson and moved to California. Have the two contrasting environments, Knoxville and San Francisco, affected your work in unique ways, and if so, how?”
I should never have gotten married when I did. I was never on my own: in 1952 I went from my father’s home to my husband’s home and his career. All the Southern influences on a woman and her proper role and fulfillment came crashing down on me. Constantly I was told how lucky it was to find a man who was smarter than me and would put up with all I wanted to do. So I gave up the Fulbright and the job in New York, got married in 1952 right after graduating and headed West as Wade, a physicist, went from Oak Ridge National Lab to do research at RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. After two years there in Los Angeles he quit the military and went to work in San Francisco for the Bechtel Corp. Not finding any work in art, I was an Escrow Officer in a Bank for two years and then had children: 3 children under five years old with no help and family 3,000 miles away. I never stopped doing art though most was of crying or sleeping children. After several years I began going back to Knoxville and letting Mother help with the kids – which she loved – and began drawing and painting all over East Tennessee, especially at Elkmont and in the mountains. I have very deep roots in Knoxville and am heavily imprinted with the mountains.
San Francisco was more of an art center with important, established museums, but had at least one big defect to me. Almost everyone had come there to get away from somewhere else: Wichita or Tallahassee or the Baptist Church in Evanston or Sedan, Kansas. If – when anything went wrong – the job, the girl – they just moved on – and on. No roots, no sense of responsibility to a community. I grew up in First Baptist Church and was taught that if you were given more than most people you owed more than most people. Since my primary subject has always been the study of human beings I carry that with me – and never stop drawing.
#6 “One of your most well-known bodies of work – Revival! – was the culmination of a seven year project during the late 1960s and early 1970s that chronicled the spiritual phenomena of the peoples from the South. How did Revival! come about? What inspired your use of pastel on black velvet, and what were some of your greatest challenges and rewards during the project?”
In 1958 I had been planning a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. working with Walter Hopps, a wonderful Museum Director who truly liked artists and their ideas. That summer I had been drawing as usual in Knoxville when I happened to go to a tent revival in the (North East?) area along Magnolia Ave. when an incredibly charismatic event occurred, Later, back in Washington I told Walter I wanted to work with the revivalist tent life but wasn’t sure of getting the trust of the various preachers and people, so we left it at that: I would try. Most of that summer I spent getting introduced to preachers and showing them examples of my work. They would say to come that night, “we’ll see.” It turned out well. I was perfectly comfortable with people “falling-out-under-the-power,” speaking in tongues, shouting, testifying – and I could sing the hymns without looking at the book. As my father and uncle were well known Knoxville lawyers I was easy to check out: it was obvious that I wasn’t “- a damn Yankee going slumming.”
That was the biggest challenge: would they accept me with all the various equipment to openly document their most intense religious expressions, not drawing surreptiously, taking quick notes or using a hidden camera.
This began a long and fascinating collaboration with the Pentecostal People that lasted until the mid 1980’s. I went to literally hundreds of revival meetings, a great number in tents, and drew, photographed, audio taped and finally videotaped this exciting American phenomenon including some very rare practices such as handling fire and drinking poison. Documentation of this is preserved for study in the Smithsonian Institution, Cultural History Division, and in the Library of Congress, Archive of Folk Song and also the Art Division where 30 drawings are preserved. I retain only copies of the audio and video tapes so that I may make edited pieces from them.
I always told the Pentecostal People I was an artist: they told me I was a missionary to send their message to the world. Last Spring I was lecturing on this at the Smithsonian and their distinguished audience asked me why they or I should care about these obscure people. My reply was that Evangelical Christians number about 70 million of our citizens – and growing. They have elected your last six presidents and will elect the next six: and are allied to neither party: you’d better understand them.
My greatest reward – other than over a dozen solo museum shows – is finding the perfect joining of form and function in the use of black velvet as a ground to depict the intense, claustrophobic world of extreme values to duplicate the emotional extremes in the lives of these devout people.
When I told the worshippers I was an artist they assumed that I worked on black velvet as that was often the only art they had seen: the garish paintings trucked in from Mexico and sold at the general store, along the highway or at the local Mohawk gas station. The religious images were usually the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane or Jesus knocking on a door rather than the worldly images of Elvis or Polynesian maidens. I was amused by the idea and as I often explored new media I was curious enough to try it and after long experimenting with various velvets found it to be a wonderful ground cursed with an awful reputation. Friends still leave odd images on my doorstep (I have 12 of Elvis’s crying.)
For some time I continued drawing or painting the Revivalists in their services but later I shifted to drawing and painting their beliefs and found the velvet worked very well for that in the images of “The Mark of the Beast” series about the End Times on Earth and the “Crucifixions” which dealt with following the Biblical injunction to carry your own cross through life.
#7 “There is a certain dichotomy in your work. On the one hand, there is the persistence of the individual, while on the other there exists much broader themes that are common to humanity. Could you comment on this seeming dichotomous relationship between individual and universal as it plays out in your oeuvre?”
The themes may be broad but I almost never do a “universal” subject (except possibly the series on “Old Testament Figures.) I’m always drawing or painting the unique person. A series may have a consistent theme such as the comment of Sartre that “We live with death on our shoulder” but the images are portraits of individuals. For example, I was drawing a young man who seemed to be going through a great many stresses and hardships, struggling to understand himself. He finally went into psychotherapy and one day it all came together for him: it was as if he woke up newborn but as an adult. I thought, “That’s Adam!” and that was indeed the image I drew. I wasn’t seeking to illustrate a Bible story of Adam, but recognizing the psychological truth in a unique person.
If dichotomy is the division into two mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities I can’t accept that as any definition of my work. A far more likely definition is of balancing on an edge where the thing and also its opposite are true.
#8 “Do you think your work carries the same meaning across time? Is there a tendency to revisit themes and subject matters, or should an artist constantly search for more edgy, political material?”
Since I am endlessly fascinated by the enormous variety of – and in – human beings it would seem that I could never find the same meaning even if I kept on drawing the same individual. Themes or series just seem to happen: I might notice that a lot of work seems to have a similarity so I call it a series. To “constantly search for more edgy, political material” sounds like a career move of some kind, which I never do and don’t think has much validity. There is nothing less appropriate or approved of in art politics today than to spend a great many years working with religious Fundamentalists in an understanding way. Friends in New York City refused to come to a show of “Revival!” at the InterArt Center there because they disapproved so much of my subject. I am reminded of a sculptor, Elise Haas, in San Francisco who had a show at the Temple Emmanuel Museum and included a crucifix, which outraged many Temple members as invalidating the Holocaust. She said, “There were a great many people crucified other than Jesus Christ, most of them were Jews, and I’ll do it if I want to!” In my “Crucifixion” series the similarity of all the figures is not in a drawn or painted crucifix but the psychological similarity of all those figures going through great suffering to something beyond it. In the “Crucifixion of Calvino de Felippis” for example Calvino had fought in World War II but had become a Pacifist as he strove to understand whether wars ever solve problems. As he was preaching on street corners during a later war (the Korean) he was attacked and men beat him up. His friends told him later as he laid unconscious he said, “God forgive these guys, they don’t know what they’re doing.” He told me Jesus came to him and talked to him while he was insensible and that was why he wanted to pose for the painting.
#9 “What attracts you to the human figure as a subject matter? What steps do you take to approach the human figure with a sense of freshness and creative spontaneity?”
Although occasionally I’ll do a flower or some image to please someone in the family – usually the children – nothing really excites me except the living form – human or sometimes animal. Wittgenstein said, “The body is the best image of the human soul” which seems to convey what I try for. After years and years of drawing the body – including five years doing medical art in operating rooms to understanding anatomy better – I’m still endlessly fascinated by its complexity. However, when I’m drawing there is no particular striving to get the big toe right: if I don’t know how to draw it by now I should give up. When I draw someone I become the person I’m drawing, I’m crawling inside their skin to be them for a while. There are some preferences such as drawing older people: there’s so much more to draw and so many more life possibilities and complexities. I did many series of lovers and always preferred the older lovers. Currently I’m using more extreme lighting, which is always helpful in showing the emotional extremes, which are my major subject.
#10 “For many years, you have been recognized as an active feminist and a proponent of women’s rights. From your perspective, have opportunities for women changed over the years in the artist’s studio, in the workplace, and in the home? What still needs to be achieved?”
It’s sad to still be asked this. My grandparents were Feminists: my grandfather refused to give my grandmother a wedding ring because it was a sign of bondage. They mostly worked to control the sale of alcohol because working men drank up their wages on their way home so the wife and kids were greatly deprived. I’m a Feminist but also a Masculinist: I’m against anything that limits human beings in their search for excellence, whether it is their gender, their race, their age, their height, their weight, their intellect – anything. I started being aware of discrimination when friends complained so I decided to find out for myself: I got out a lot of catalogs and art books and just started counting and was shocked. Ever since then I’ve kept track: first of how many artists there are in the U. S. (about 300,000), how many are women (about 46%), how many women get the degrees in art (about 56%), how many women get in shows that are juried (about 57%), how many get in shows that are invited by some “expert” (about 23%), how many are in the art history textbooks (about 9%), how many get hired to teach, etc. The statistics do change but at the same glacially slow pace as women in the top management of major U. S. corporations: up from 5% in 1995 to 8% today. One cause of this is that women are often raised to be passive and need lots of training and mentoring to fight against this. But also there is a particular problem in the field of art and the culprit is usually the lazy Curator or Director who doesn’t leave his beautiful air conditioned office and go out to see what is truly happening in the studios.
Whenever I jury a show I’m fascinated by the great variety of marvelous art being done all over this country but not being shown. For example, there’s a lot of Spanish mysticism occurring East of San Diego but what you see in the art magazines is the same old stuff chosen by two or three men in New York. When I juried the Crocker Museum Annual (all California art) I was startled to find 4 or 5 paintings about where had the old hen hidden her eggs today? Not being raised on a farm it hadn’t occurred to me as an art subject, but there it was, good art being done but not being noticed. All artists should write museum Boards of Directors to complain about lazy elitists and to cheer for the Directors who go hunting for the great art being done in our increasingly diverse country today.
© Eleanor Dickinson 1970-2010
Here’s a link to the webpage for that show: Enduring: the Social Conscience of Eleanor Dickinson