In Eleanor’s own words:
In 1973 I began to explore drawing on velvet as I would any other art material. The notion was triggered by the Pentecostal People in the lower Appalachian Mountains with whom I worked every summer, drawing, taping, and photographing their religious services of faith-healing, falling-out-under-the-power, handling serpents, or testifying in their search for Salvation through the Holy Spirit. When they heard that I was an artist, they assumed that I painted on black velvet, as that was almost the only form of original art that they ever saw. Their small homes, often trailers, always had at least one velvet from the Mexican mass production lines: The Last Supper, Jesus in the Garden, and Elvis were most popular. The assumption was amusing at first; then when I returned to my San Francisco studio I began to experiment with the material as I had with so many other common or rare art substances: silver point, bistre, monoprints, paper pulp, sanguine, hand-made pastels, or graphite. Mild curiosity changed to fascination, however, as I discovered velvet was a perfectly good ground cursed with a bad reputation.
In my work with drawing the worshippers in the Southern revivals, I found black velvet to be the perfect union of form and subject. The darkness duplicated the intense blackness of a Tennessee night and the portions of extreme light were such as would be seen in a revival tent beside the road lit by four 40 watt light bulbs strung overhead. But it was more than mere duplication of the scene, for light coloring on the dense space of extreme black recapitulated the extremes of emotion shown in those intensely charged epic struggles against the Devil and towards the light of God. The claustrophobia of the darkness echoed the closed-in, in-bred, convoluted lives of these worshippers, and medium and message coalesced. As I was usually videotaping the services as well as drawing, there was also a union between the stark light-dark extremes of the video (due to the very low light level) and the emotions and the drawings of black on white.
This same union of method and subject has carried over into following related series such as “The Mark of the Beast” (dealing with the End of the World) and “Crucifixions” (individual crosses of pain and praise) as I continue my explorations of the ecstatic states of human existence.
Problems of working on black velvet are not technical but aesthetic. Any strong color will appear gaudy and must be used very sparingly. Even black, when used on an extreme black such as velvet, will appear much lighter. Working in a limited range of dark colors preserves the works on a black surface from gaudiness and theatricality.
I find that it is challenging as an artist to be accepting of a wide range of art materials, whether from ancient times or newly discovered, provided they are tested for archival qualities. The important thing about materials or techniques is the ease and harmony felt in their use so that one may get down to the real task of the artist and say with them what needs to be said.
From Varo Registry
© Eleanor Dickinson 1970-2014