Erin McKee looks at Elaine Davis’ bead portraits.
Local artist Elaine Davis is a portraitist with a twist: her materials of choice are beads and thread, not brushes or easels.
“It’s like I’m painting with beads,” she says. “I use shadows like a painter would.”
Sewing since childhood, she discovered her love for beads by accident.
“It started with studs in a leather jacket that came from my sister’s ex-boyfriend,” she tells me. They were heart- and star-shaped studs, purchased from the Hobby Centre formerly up on Harvey Road. After the jacket was “totally covered” with studs, on a whim she bought pony beads at a flea market.
“I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so I just attached them to the pockets,” she says. “Basically my beadwork started with stitching beads to clothes.”
Though lots of kids have been known to get their kicks from embellishing their clothing in various fashions, Elaine took it one step further.
“I think the first [portrait I did] was Vincent Van Gogh… I put it on the back of one of my jackets.” Over the past decade, she has created dozens of pieces. Her portrait subjects have varied widely: there’s Anne and Margot Frank, Frodo and co. from The Lord of the Rings, local musicians, such as Jenny Gear and Duane Andrews, a smattering of friends, and of course, her mom.
And then there’s River Phoenix.
Her portrait of River Phoenix— the teenage heartthrob who died in 1993 from an accidental drug overdose—is done in pastel-coloured hues of blue and green on an orange terrycloth background (formerly a towel). Adorning the hallway of her home, it’s one of only two pieces she has hanging up. The other is the portrait of her mother.
“River Phoenix meant a lot to me when I was a teenager,” she tells me. “I remember taking my lunch money… to buy these little magazines with him in them, and eventually I had accumulated this big pile of River Phoenix articles, interviews, posters, and pin-ups.
“Three weeks before he died,” she says, “I threw them out because we were moving.”
“When I found out he died, it completely crushed me,” she says, her teenaged self feeling as if she had done something completely terrible. “I tried to throw away something that meant so much to me, and then I realised what a mistake it was. But it seemed right at the time, because I just wanted to grow up.” She created the portrait in her early 20s in homage to her forlorn teenage self. “I have it now, and I have it forever,” says Elaine.
How does she create portraits with beads? While her technique has evolved over the years, now she often begins by sketching the person on a piece of fabric with a soft pencil, which will eventually go over some sort of backing, such as cardboard. And while the process of choosing her colours is a little like painting—she matches coloured beads in dishes, much like a painter’s palette—her technique is completely different.
“I can’t paint,” she says. “When you look at one of these pieces… you’ll see colours splattered everywhere, and all of the different beads next to each other… that’s because what I’m doing is, if a certain part of the face is pronouncedly red, but it’s a certain shade of red I don’t have, then I’ll have to take a bunch of different shades of red and maybe the odd other colour, and then I’ll use it like a painter would.”
Seen up close, her art is a riot of colour. With a bit of distance, gradients and shadows flow into each other, creating the impression of a face. She sews the beads to the fabric much like embroidery, and lately she has been experimenting with weaving her beads and thread together, requiring no fabric at all.
While most of her portraits aren’t of people she knows personally, a handful of them are. “I usually do a portrait of someone because there’s something about them that I respect,” she says. As a shy person, she says that it can be challenging at times to show how she feels about people in her life.
“So one of the ways I can express that appreciation for a person is to do a portrait of them.”
Artwork by Elaine Davis (NL) and Kathryn Ruppert-Dazai (ON) will be on display at the Eastern Edge Gallery on Harbour Drive, May 5th – June 16th. Some of Elaine’s beadwork is available for sale downtown at Posie Row and The Tickle Trunk. Visit her website: beadwares.net