By Debbie Manns – Gallery Manager
Members of the Artists League of Texas, 1988Anthony Brown, Kathy Edwards, Linda Fawcett, Patricia FooShee, Clint Hamilton, Martha Kiel, Van LeBus, Alice Leese, Larry Millar, Linda Murray, Michael O’Conner, Becky Patterson. Juanita Pollard, and Diana Skripka.In the days before the formation of the Center for Contemporary Arts, the artists who made up the collective that preceded it were young, fun, and a little crazy. Among the innovative exhibits, parties, and related projects they undertook, the “Mayonnaise Olympia,” purported to be the world’s largest black velvet painting, may be the grandest.The idea for the 8’ x 30’ painting came from artist David Durham and his author friend Sam Pendergrass. Pendergrass, a native Abilenian, journalist, playwright, biographer, teacher, and judge at the original World Championship Chili Cook-off in Terlingua, was about to release his first novel, Avenida Juarez. The novel tells the story of some colorful characters in Juarez, Mexico. The depiction of a reclining nude, painted on black velvet, seemed to fit in with the book’s setting among bars and brothels in the border town, and seemed like a great way to promote the new book.Clint Hamilton, another artist member who had come back home to Abilene after establishing a name in New York, was tasked with finding enough black velvet to stretch across the three 8’ x 10’ frames that would hold the painting. With 22 yards of upholstery-grade, black crushed velvet, which had to be joined together to make it wide enough to stretch across the frames, and about seven gallons of house paint, thirteen artists worked side by side on different portions of the piece, completing it in about seven hours.Linda Murray, one of the artists who worked on the painting explained,“Velvet soaks up paint. It took three gallons just to finish Olympia’s flesh.” In describing how that many different artists with styles of their own were able to create the piece, she added, “We’d draw a while, vote, discuss. It was a democratic process.”The painting is a take-off on Edouard Manet’s 1863 work titled “Olympia.” Say “Manet’s Olympia” several times fast and you will begin to understand why the name morphed into “Mayonnaise Olympia.” The artists, painting with a sense of humor, added the jar of Hellman’s on the boudoir table. It wasn’t in the original Manet version. Neither was the glitter that Hamilton added to Olympia’s bracelet and shoes.The painting was unveiled at a reception that introduced Pendergrast’s novel, complete with margaritas, a burro, and Pendergrast’s award-winning chili. A $5 admission charge and the proceeds from the first 50 copies of the book that were sold— wrapped in black velvet and signed by the author—benefitted the Artists League of Texas, which formed The Center for Contemporary Arts a year later.It’s not easy moving or hanging a painting of this size. The artists painted it in the Grissom Building but needed to move it to their gallery on the second story of the Robert’s Building next door—their original location. To get it through the narrow doors, they cut the frames in half, folded over the velvet “canvas,” carried the three sections down the block and up the stairs to the Artists League gallery, and reassembled it for exhibiting. For this exhibit, the three sections were loaded into a truck by Durham and his assistant Johnny Simpson. Simpson then delivered it to the Center. It was unloaded by artist member Walker “Dub” Wellborn’s graphics students from Texas State Technical College, then hung in place by another artist member Anthony Huff. As with raising children, it takes a village to handle a 240 square foot piece of art.In a 1988 article in the Abilene Reporter-News, Hamilton was reported to have said that he hoped the public would join in the fun with the artists and not misinterpret the effort. He added that the painting was a “totally humorous statement” to go along with the tenor of Pendergrast’s book. “We’re all serious artists who got together and produced a totally unique work of art for a good cause… ourselves.”We who benefit from the Center’s presence in Abilene today certainly think it was a good cause.—Debbie Dillard Manns, Gallery Manager
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