Memoir and Biography of Jessie Benton Evans, 1866-1954,

Historic Arizona Landscape Painter

by Her Great Grand-Daughter, Artist Jessie Benton Evans



 As children, my sister Jane and I climbed the southeast face of Camelback Mountain to a large promontory of stone we called "flat rock." Stretched on its broad, horizontal surface, we gazed at the panorama below--our childhood home, our grandparents' resorts, Jokake and Paradise Inns, and the tall cypresses and gardens clustered around the home of our artist great grandmother. To the east, the pristine desert expanded unbroken towards our favorite mountains which shimmered in the light--Four Peaks, Superstition, Granite Reef (now called Red Mountain) and the Mc Dowells.


 The desert shaped both my art and that of my great grandmother, Jessie Benton Evans, 1866-1954, for whom I was named. Our paintings were shown, together with other artists in the exhibit, "In Celebration: A Century of Arizona Women Artists," at Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, February 3 - April 29, 2001.


 Speaking five languages, in mid life my great grandmother, Jessie, came west for her health, having spent her adult life in Chicago and Europe. The year was 1913. In Arizona, soon recovered, she hated, then quickly grew to love the desert. "I think the colors here more beautiful than in any place I have been," she said. "The variety is endless. Everything is here except the sea, but one really gets the effect of the sea in looking over the vast expanses of desert. The wide spaces give an uplifted feeling of infinity--the eternity of things." At the base of Camelback Mountain, she purchased 80 acres and built a house in the style of an Italian villa. During her last 41 years in Arizona, she became a leading painter of southwest landscape.


 The same independent spirit that led her to Chicago and Europe also pushed her west. Still in her teens, she graduated from Oberlin College. She next studied at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1886, she married Denver Evans, a young businessman in Chicago. Two years later, their only child, son Robert T. Evans was born. She then graduated from the Chicago Art Institute.


 With her husband's support, Jessie then went with her son to Europe, studying with noted artists over a period of many years. She lived in Venice, Florence, Verona, Naples, Paris, Rome and many smaller out of the way places. Among her instructors were William Merritt Chase, Albert Harter, Lawton Parker, and Charles Hawthorne. She spent four summers in Venice with Professor Zanetti Zilla. Her paintings were in the Paris Salons of 1911 and 1912. She was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists and the Arts Club, the Societe' des Artistes of Paris and Salvator Rosa of Naples.


 Back in Chicago, leading artists and musicians gathered at her studio, including stars of the Grand Opera who sang at these "salons." Opera star Mary Garden gave her a Juliet costume in which she later posed. Tenor John McCormack later visited her in Scottsdale, and author John Galsworthy spent days at her desert home pouring over her extensive library.


 Early Scottsdale had little cultural entertainment. People then remember Jessie coercing Al Loveland and other professional people of that era to dress in green oilcloth and march down Camelback Mountain reciting "Gods of the Mountain." Jane and I later had to read aloud.


 Vivacious and energetic with a warm, encompassing personality, Jessie's motto was "rest is rust." She was multi-faceted and could do anything--carve wood, cast sculpture, build a stone wall. She camped and painted all over the state. Pima Chief, Juan Lewis and his family visited frequently. Juan Lewis Jr. drove her in a horse and buggy to paint at Roosevelt Dam, then under construction. Juan and she rowed out on the lake where she set up an easel in the boat. A mass of writhing snakes was displaced by the rising water. As she painted, Juan knocked snakes from the side of the boat as they tried to wriggle on board. Returning down the steep Apache Trail, the buggy's brakes gave out. To keep the buckboard from overpowering the horses, Juan lashed a tree to the back as a drag."


 She gave free art lessons to everyone. Jesus Corall, who later founded the popular Scottsdale restaurant Los Olivos recounts in his biography, "Caro Amigo," how she taught him to sculpt, make plaster molds and cast in concrete. She "encouraged me greatly," he writes. "One day, Grandma, as she was affectionately called, asked me to visit her. As soon as I seated myself in her parlor, she urged me to join the American Art Association in Chicago. 'I am not ready yet,' I answered and began to cry like a baby. Quite embarrassed, I related how often I had tried to reach the outer edge of creativity and in doing so, felt presumptuous. She often sought my opinion (of her paintings). 'I want to reproduce their spirit, to reproduce their eyes as they are,' she would energetically point out. I was intoxicated by the smell of paint, the surroundings, the delight that I felt when I peeled the different parts of a mold and the object came out perfect."


 My great grandmother's house, a short desert walk from my childhood home, was surrounded by tall cypresses, flowers, arbors, grottoes, a sunken garden, and a small pool and fountain where we played. Her home was filled with antiques, books, stained glass, bas-reliefs of classical mythology and artifacts from her European travels. Basins were giant clamshells and faucet handles had dragon heads. Dozens of her colorful paintings were stacked one against the other in rows along her living room wall. I flipped through them like a large deck of cards.


 A 1922 Arizona Pathfinder states "The house itself is a Southern Italian type. The Byzantine arches on the east and south, and the Italian garden in the rear, are replicas of an old Italian garden in Vicenzaa.  The well is an exact copy of one in the ancient garden of St. John Lateran in Rome." Jessie stated, "We need to get back to the old Pompeian idea of beauty in all the implements, utensils and necessities of daily life. We lose so much of the joy of life which we might know in common things."


 Her daughter-in-law Sylvia grew up in a home with a similar philosophy.

Sylvia's father, William Day Gates founded The American Terra Cotta Company in Chicago, producing architectural ornament for Louis Sullivan's buildings there, and famous Teco pottery, distinguished for its elegant, simple forms based on the principle "both useful and beautiful."


 In 1928, Robert and Sylvia, my grandparents, built Jokake Inn in Spanish- style adobe at the base of Camelback Mountain, now site of the Phoenician. Later, Robert built nearby Paradise Inn in Mediterranean style. Breaking with the cluttered Victorian style popular then, Sylvia decorated with simple southwestern furnishings. Many people, some famous, flocked to the Inns, often buying a painting from Jessie and later asking Robert to build them winter homes here. Many homes he designed exist today, including El Estribo on Camelback Road.  Sylvia and Robert's son, Denver Jr., was my father and a builder. My mother, Nancy was a free-spirited Rhode Islander. My sister Jane and I, with a new sister named after our mother, led a charmed early life, roaming the desert, riding horseback and swimming at the Inns. To our young dismay, the Inns were sold in 1949 and early '50's.


 I was given a paintbrush as soon as I could hold it, and accompanied my great grandmother on painting trips. To watch cactus, trees, mountains and sky appear on canvas seemed perfectly natural. One of her great gifts was to teach me to observe nature first-hand and paint from life. She said, "An artist should have adaptability of mind and be able to interpret all nature, for truly, art is not realistic reproduction but interpretation."


 This direct approach is how I learned to paint. The drama of sky, earth, wind, smell, sound and total reality is always so original and alive that it forces me into discovery and the unexpected, far beyond what I could dream up in a studio. I personally cannot experience that depth of reality second-hand, from memory, photos or sketches. I paint without a preconceived image, preferring to let the subject show me what's there. No matter how large the canvas, I paint landscapes outdoors, tying 6 x 8- foot canvases to my van for support if they won't fit on an easel.


 In a 1929 American Magazine of Art, my great grandmother says, "I think that real beauty exists where we least expect it, in an unrevealed sense, disclosing itself only as we earnestly search for it, thus stimulating our creative faculties. The desert seems to me always alluring and illusive. It never allows one to work in an imitative way. There is a virgin freshness in the barely trodden hills of the southwest that one misses in tired, worn Europe."


 Rudy Turk, artist and former Director of the ASU Art Museum, called her "One of the outstanding artists in the history of Arizona and foremost cultural leaders in the area. Her vision was original and honest. While other artists painted the west as imposingly grand and idealized or remote and cold, she viewed it as an intimate friend. Who else would have painted an ironwood."


 Friend Virginia Ullman says, "She was one of the most fantastic, lively people I've ever met, with great strength of character, fortitude and determination. Her wonderful house was rich with every vestige of civilization and heritage. Although gregarious, she was solitary at the same time."


 My great grandmother died  in 1954. The Inns and her house were leveled years later to make way for the Phoenician. Her house is an historic loss. Only Jokake Towers remain, an authentic reminder of early Arizona that should be preserved.


 My future husband, Don Gray, an artist, was growing up in Phoenix. We met years later at an ASU summer art class in Sedona. After graduate degrees from the University of Iowa, we went to New York, living first in Manhattan and later, sixty miles north in surprisingly rural, beautiful country.


 We and six other artists with different painting styles, but a common belief in tackling painting head on from life formed a group. Called "The Street Painters," we exhibited at the Art Students League, Lever House, Lincoln Center and other venues. Artists Raphael Soyer and Alice Neel wrote their support in our catalogue. I believe the Street Painters will have historical significance like the Ash Can painters. I still ship paintings East to show with the group. Don and I also wrote on art for various New York art publications. On Manhattan Cable Television, Don moderated a program on art and I interviewed artists and authors.


 Returning to Arizona ten years ago, we remain dedicated artists, and continue writing on art. I am thrilled to be showing work this spring at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg with my great grandmother and other artists past and present, including artist friends like Ann Coe and Barbara Gurwitz.


 My sister, Jane Evans, now an insurance agent in Chandler, formed the largest singles riding club in Arizona. There is not a canyon or mountain she hasn't explored. My younger sister, Nancy Hawkins, sells real estate and raises horses in Casa Grande. Our roots have affected our lives deeply.


 Every day I pass Camelback Mountain with its great looming animal shape, its red rock head forming echo canyon, which reverberated our young voices long ago. In fact, my great grandmother's painting in the Desert Caballeros Western Museum exhibit is called "Picnic at Echo Canyon." I grew up on myth -- a monk bent forever penitent at his mountain altar, a camel turned to stone. Camelback was my mystical friend, a product of legend, almost Biblical. I still see nature as mythic and spiritual and its forms biomorphic. My great grandmother's house, her art, my relatives and the Inns almost seem part of the myth. Yet they existed not long ago.


Copyright by Jessie Benton Evans


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