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Finding aid to Eleanor Dickinson fieldwork collection now online

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The following is a guest post from AFC processing archivist Marcia Segal.

Group of people in a large tent stand with their arms raised toward the ceiling
Photo of worshippers from the Eleanor Dickinson collection (AFC 1971/001).

The remarkable audio and video recordings in the Eleanor Dickinson collection (AFC 1970/001), recorded circa 1969-1980, capture a moment in time in the years before the Internet and other technological developments changed the way people communicate. The immediacy of religious services, (uninterrupted by now-inevitable cell phones), with preaching, singing, babies crying, musicians tuning their instruments and doing sound checks, people listening and people testifying, draws in and holds our attention. In the 21st century we have become unaccustomed to experiencing documentary work without a voiceover or closed captions. Researchers using this collection at the American Folklife Center can now access an extensive online finding aid for the collection at this link.

The Eleanor Dickinson collection includes extensive audio and video documentation of religious practice, music, and culture in the south and southeastern United States, and complements audio recordings in a number of other American Folklife Center collections. The Center’s holdings include more than 30 collections with recordings of church services and more than 200 with vernacular hymn singing. Eleanor Dickinson’s recordings of shape-note hymn singing join documentation made by John W. Work, John and Ruby Lomax, Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson, Herbert Halpert, William Ferris, Raymond Hamrick, and the Center’s South-Central Georgia Folklife Project collection (AFC 1982/010), and offers a broad historical picture of the importance of religion in everyday 20th century American life.

Practitioners of snake handling follow a literal interpretation of the Gospel of Mark 16:18 to “take up serpents” as a test of faith, with the belief that handlers will not be harmed. Eleanor Dickinson Collection (AFC 1971/001)

Growing up in the Southern Baptist church, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dickinson was aware of the depth and diversity of religious devotion in her geographic area. As a talented visual artist, she began creating drawings of people at revivals in southern Appalachian states in 1967, and turned to photography and audiovisual recordings to capture the more fleeting moments she witnessed. She discovered she wanted to learn more about the people she drew as individuals, and about their beliefs. Dickinson’s figure drawings are spare and sometimes incorporate incomplete lines, allowing the viewer to use imagination to fill in the details. Her works on black velvet have a certain luminosity—figures depicted almost with an inner light amidst the black velvet. Whether the image is of a person with head bowed in prayer, raising hands in praise, performing laying on of hands, or simply sitting in a chair and listening to a speaker, the simplicity of the lines allows the imagination to draw the rest, including a setting, sounds, and events. Thirty Eleanor Dickinson drawings in pencil and in pen-and-ink depicting people at religious services are located in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, and were donated to the Library with this collection. Twenty-two of these drawings may be viewed online at this link. Dickinson’s art serves as a portal to the lives of people who attended the revivals. Unsurprisingly, Dickinson has always defined herself as an artist rather than a fieldworker, a commitment that continues to the present day.

In her letter to AFC reference librarian Gerry Parsons, dated February 1, 1983, Eleanor agrees to the Library’s standard access requirements for her collection, with the understanding that her “intent is to protect the performers from commercial exploitation, but not to hinder the information getting out.” Concern for the people she documented was still on her mind in 2004, during an in-person conversation with me. She said that it was her practice to play the recordings she’d made of participants back to them. If they found the content objectionable, she would destroy the recording. In her interview with AFC folklife specialist David Taylor, she reiterated the same philosophy: she would get permissions from informants but also show them photos and play back recordings. To prove her sincerity she would destroy any materials to which they objected. She told me that she earned respect among some of her subjects by memorizing and reciting Bible passages. She could also sing hymns without looking at a hymnal, which was a critical entry point before she could make a single drawing. Her subjects also appreciated that she did not create caricatures of them. As important as her familiarity with Southern religious traditions was; more important in doing fieldwork was how she presented herself: with good manners and appropriate dress.

An exhibit of materials gathered by Eleanor Dickinson.
An exhibit of materials gathered by Eleanor Dickinson. Eleanor Dickinson Collection (AFC 1971/001)

Dickinson interviewed Rev. Howard Finster extensively between 1981 and 1991. Included in the collection is an interview of Finster, a minister and visionary artist, discussing his beliefs as he creates a painting on glass. As he paints, he discusses his beliefs with Dickinson. The interviews with him and with other ministers provide insights to the thoughts, beliefs, and character of these religious leaders. Howard Finster’s life and work are documented in other AFC collections such as the Howard Finster collection (AFC 1984/016) recorded in part during Finster’s visits to the Library of Congress.

In the book “Revival!,” Dickinson’s artwork and Barbara Benziger’s text describe and depict Southern Appalachian revival meetings. In her interview with David Taylor, Dickinson stated that she is drawn to ecstatic moments of human experience. In the most basic sense, a revival is a spiritual awakening or reawakening. By means of this finding aid, the collection is now more readily discovered, through the never-sleeping medium of the Internet.


If the links above do not work for any reason, the permanent “handle” for the Eleanor Dickinson finding aid is:

The “handle” for the South Central Georgia Folklife Project finding aid is:

Sources consulted

Dickinson, Eleanor, and Barbara Benziger (text). “Revival!” Introduction by Walter Hopps. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

“Eleanor Dickinson [artist and educator, San Francisco]” University of California (Santa Cruz): Arts Events.

“Eleanor Dickinson: A Retrospective” (exhibit). Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Saint Louis University

Finding aid to the Eleanor Dickinson papers, 1951-2003. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art.

King, Richard. “Eleanor Dickinson: Religion and the Southern Artist.” Women’s Art Journal Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1982), pp. 1-5. Accessed via JSTOR 2016-08-18.

Maguire, Marsha. “Confirming the word: snake-handling sects in Southern Appalachia” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Summer 1981), p. 121.

Rhea, Taylor. “The Art of Aging.” Atria Senior Living.

Walker, Celia S. “Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 47-48. Accessed via JSTOR 2016-08-18


  1. Thank you so much for making this important collection so accessible. The drawings are elegant in their simplicity and portray a sacred South that I came to know and appreciate in my 20+ years in Tennessee.

    This is a beautifully written post. As always, I deeply appreciate the talent and dedication of the AFC staff and always feel that I know individuals a bit better through their posts — what interests them and how they express that. Thank you.

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