by Carole Verona
Mt. Airy resident Eleanor Day, 53, always knew she would be an artist. While growing up in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia, she attended Holy Child School and looked forward to Friday, which was designated as “art day.” Since then, Eleanor’s passion for art has remained strong. She continues to paint, exhibit and study, taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way to develop and grow as an artist.
In March of this year, she won First Prize and Best of Show for her painting Dahlia #1 in an exhibit at the Philadelphia Sketch Club. She also won the Juror Prize for “Injured Bird” at the Cheltenham Art Center Show in May 2016. These are just two in a long list of awards she has garnered over the years.
The images she saw when she was a student at Holy Child stayed with her and continue to influence her art to this day. “I spent a lot of time sitting in that church looking at the stained glass windows. The atmosphere still comes up in my paintings, directly and indirectly,” she said.
When she was a teenager, after attending another high school, she switched to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) the year it opened. She was a member of its first graduating class in 1980.
“At CAPA, I was pretty serious about painting, and my teacher, Philip Corey, supported me in wanting to be an artist exclusively. He was an eccentric guy, and his favorite painter was Caravaggio (an Italian painter of the late 16th/early 17th centuries). Corey is still painting today, and his paintings continue to reflect Caravaggio’s influence. From Corey, I learned how to work monochromatically.”
That is, she covers the canvas with a green monochromatic sketch done in oil paints. Over that she applies more detailed shapes and colors. “Building my images in layers over bold drawings gives them depth and luminosity. The Caravaggio influence is still there because I like paintings with a high contrast of dark and light.”
After graduating from CAPA, Eleanor spent the summer in Europe working as a nanny for a friend’s family. They lived in Paris, and then traveled by car through Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. During her travels, she visited as many museums as she could.
When she returned home, Eleanor attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and graduated in 1984 with a degree in painting. She returned to Europe on her own and traveled from city to city to see the works of her favorite artists.
Among them were the Italian Renaissance painters and the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of English painters who were active in the mid 19th century. She also visited as many cathedrals as she could, studying stained glass windows and religious paintings. She continued her educational travels a few years later with a trip to Spain.
“My style developed from all of those influences, and it is still developing. I went through phases in my older work. I painted just from my head; I didn’t use photographs or models. That period of time brought a lot of color into my work and gave me an opportunity to be more expressive. So I bring that back when I am working in a more realistic, representational way.”
Eleanor finds it practical to photograph what she wants to paint and to supplement the photograph with life drawings. “I’m not necessarily trying to get an exact replica of the photograph. I want to capture the image that struck me and bring that up in my work … I’m very inspired by nature, but I don’t really do landscapes. I do an interpretation of the landscape, stylized in a way. Flowers have always drawn me to them, and I’ve always done figurative work. I find the figure and portraiture endlessly fascinating as subject matter. I often use family, friends and animals as models.”
In all of her work, Eleanor’s bold use of color and high contrast are reminiscent of the stained glass windows that first inspired her as a child. In 2001, she ran into Joe Black at Weavers Way. In the 1980s she worked as a waitress in Joe’s center city restaurant while she was a student at the PAFA. They married in 2002. Joe supports her work by making her stretching and finished frames. Eleanor’s two daughters from a previous marriage, Tulia, 20, and Hazel, soon to be 18, often pose for her.
In addition to painting, Eleanor helps care for her 85-year-old parents. They started exhibiting symptoms of dementia when they were in their late 70s. “We had to move them into facilities about four years ago. Mom is at Stapeley. She looks great, is healthy and will talk in a normal fashion, but everything she says is nonsensical. Dad is at Cathedral Village, is in a wheelchair and needs personal care. They have different needs at this point.” Eleanor has seven siblings. “One is in California, and the rest of us are as hands-on as we can be. It’s a big part of my life.”
What’s in the future? There are no exhibits coming up, so Eleanor is using the time to complete a few paintings and work on new ones. She is also concentrating on selling more of her work online. “Somebody in England bought three of my most recent paintings online,” she said. A painting she did of Saint Agnes now hangs in Saint Agnes Church in San Francisco. It was originally part of a series of small portraits of female saints that were mounted on a cross. She explained that the title of the series — “Pope Benedict, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Us” — referred to sexism in the Catholic Church. Someone in San Francisco was interested in buying something for the church, did a Google search, found Eleanor’s painting and purchased it a few months ago.
Eleanor also paints furniture and other objects. You can see her work at eleanorday.com.