The Art of Jessie Benton Evans:

An Essay by Theodore F. Wolff, Painter and Art Critic

for The Christian Science Monitor



 An expansive, all-embracing view of nature is out of fashion among today's art-world elite. They may find it permissible in earlier art, in the landscapes of Turner, Constable and the artists of the Hudson River School, for instance, and possibly even in some of Charles Burchfield's later paintings. But when it comes to serious art-world business, to what is suitable for today's prestigious, trend-setting galleries, expansiveness and feeling are out and detachment, invention, and dry topographical exactitude are in.


 That's a pity, since some of the world's most glorious works of art are landscape paintings that celebrate nature with passion and joy, even, at times, with what can only be described as love. In addition to the artists mentioned above, we need only think of the great Chinese and Japanese masters of the brush, of the Persian Miniaturists, of Bruegel, Rubens, Palmer, Friedrich, Van Gogh, and Munch, to name only a few. Every one of these artists confronted nature with respect, even, occasionally, with awe, and with no intention whatever of taming it or demeaning it with artifice or formula. What they produced may have resulted in images that differed slightly or significantly from the original, but never to the extent that they violated nature's importance or reality.


 Today, however, the art world seems to believe that intense emotions, especially positive ones, have little or no place in depictions of nature's numerous manifestations; that expressions of wonder and awe are excessive and often in poor taste. And that nature is best served coolly and dispassionately, and with as little drama as possible.


 One artist who disagrees and who does so emphatically in both word and deed is Jessie Benton Evans. As writer, television producer, and painter, but most tellingly as a painter, she has long championed art that engages nature directly, passionately, and without adherence to any formal dogma or theory. As a result, her landscapes are unlike any other produced today in expansiveness, emotional power, and dramatic effect.


 They are also highly original, a quality that has caught the attention of both her fellow artists and serious art professionals. Elaine de Kooning, for instance, stated in a letter that Evans "has given landscape concepts a new dimension." And critic after critic, in writing about her art, has commented on her unique vision and the power and skill with which she brings her subjects to life on canvas.


 That is not surprising since life itself, its energies, rhythms, and the forms it takes, especially when it is at its most dramatic or beatific, is what Evans' art is all about. Her paintings may begin as encounters of one sort or another with nature, but it is the life within nature that animates her art and gives it substance and meaning. What she sees, senses, and feels triggers her creative response and since that comes from deep within her, and she doesn't permit pre-conceived notions to control or define what is being created, she cannot help but be original.


 As she puts it, "I go for life in my work. I feel strongly that everything is very alive." And she goes on, "I believe that everything at some level is spiritual. Not in the conventional sense but in the sense of a stupendous force and the aliveness of the universe. We find that everything is composed of particles resonating at different frequencies. We are all vibrational at some level . . . rocks, plants, people, the universe. Colors have different vibrations. Light is a vibration. It is like a huge music of the elements. Everything is pulsating."


 To anyone who sees things this way, Van Gogh and Burchfield would have to be kindred spirits. And they are. Think only of the former's The Starry Night and any of the latter's ecstatic landscapes. Like theirs, her paintings are dramatically, even, occasionally, violently alive and totally unlike the dignified, monumental canvases of such artists as Claude and Cezanne.


 Which is not to say, however, that Evans' work is in any way directly derived from theirs, only that all three share a similar vision, one that demands, above everything else, that the artist find his or her own individual and unique way of expressing and giving form to what he or she experiences in nature.


 It is only a mild exaggeration to say that Evans' art represents a life-long love affair with nature. As far back as she can remember, painting pictures and nature went together. Her great grandmother, the well-known Arizona artist Jessie Benton Evans after whom she was named, decided when Jessie was only four years old that she would be an artist. She placed a canvas and paints before her and started her out on a still-life. Shortly afterwards they set up their easels in the desert. In Jessie's words, "It was very natural to me to create art out of nature, and a miracle to me to see it come to life under her brush. She would give me small hints . . . and would point out colors and shapes . . . I loved the smell of her oil paint, and to squeeze it from her tubes. In the afternoons, if she napped, I took the caps off all her paints and explored daubs of every color. I was also in charge of washing her brushes."


 It is obvious that the senior Jessie Benton Evans exerted a profound influence on her namesake. Not only was she herself a highly accomplished and frequently exhibited painter, she took a very personal interest in young Jessie's artistic training. During their almost daily sessions together, they would either paint in the morning or explore the family's flower gardens where Jessie learned how to arrange floral combinations according to shape and color. And it was during these shared hours that the older Jessie imparted some of her artistic philosophy, the core of which was that an artist's primary responsibility was to translate nature into art.


 She made her point by example as well as by word. Since her paintings filled both her house and the home of Jessie's parents, their impact on the very young artist was constant and enduring.


 Looking back, Evans asserts that she absorbed what these paintings had to offer "by osmosis." And by that she means not only their quality, but the expansive, directly engaged approach to landscape painting that they represented as well.


 One also cannot help but feel that young Jessie was influenced by her great grandmother's choice of subject matter—dramatic skies, trees, forests, wide open mountain spaces, and, especially, the desert. And yet that influence went just so far. The older Jessie Benton Evans may have planted the seeds, but it was the younger Jessie who fertilized them and carried them to creative levels never imagined by the older artist.


 Nature was Evans' next and most important teacher. From it she learned that for an artist it often had mythological and anthropological overtones, that it told stories, and that its images could be symbolic. She also learned how to better identify and utilize nature's ever-changing colors, shifting moods, erratic movements, gradations of light and dark, and both subtle and dramatic patterns and rhythms. She also became more aware of the drama of nature's storms and the magic of its sunrises and sunsets. But possibly most important, she learned how to depict the expansive, light-filled spaces of nature, especially as they exist in the western United States, in ways that eventually enabled her to realize her own highly personal creative objectives.


 And these objectives truly were highly personal. They were also ambitious, demanding, and, to a large extent, unprecedented. Even so, she plunged ahead, trusting in her intuitions, imagination, and skills to help her realize them.


 It took her a while to get to that point, however. Her great grandmother may have started her out on her creative journey, and nature may have helped open her eyes to some of its secrets, but as a teenager there was still a great deal to learn and assimilate about art and life in general before she could truly consider herself an artist.


 To begin rectifying that, she entered Arizona State University with a double major in Art and English because she thought she might want to be a writer. It didn't take her long, however, to realize that her original impulse was correct, and that art was the direction she wanted to go. With that settled, she was fortunate to find a member of the faculty who could aid her in acquiring the skills and insights needed to begin painting as she wished. She credits Harry Wood, who taught both painting and art history, with showing her how to become aware of the nuances of color in everything she saw, and, probably even more important, with encouraging her to follow her own instincts and to paint as freely and expressively as she wanted.


 After graduation and before entering graduate school at The University of Iowa, Evans spent a year in Aspen, Colorado. While there, she did a series of pastels that unfortunately have been lost, but which appear to have given the first real indication of what was to come in her mature work. She describes them as loose, free, and imbued with the subtle rhythms of music. When she got to graduate school, she showed them to one of her teachers. His response: "You've got a bonfire going. We've got to put that out." Then he slapped a stuffed magpie on the table and said, "Draw every feather." She did and produced something that satisfied him. The criticism stuck, however, and inhibited her creative efforts until she realized that he had been wrong, that what he had described as a bonfire that had to be extinguished was actually the most original part of her vision, and her greatest gift.


 A much more positive influence entered her life in 1960 when she married Don Gray, a fellow student at The University of Iowa and a painter with exceptional, wide-ranging talents and a total commitment to art that easily matched hers. She was taken by his talent, intellect and passion for art, and says that she learned more about art from talking and looking at paintings with him than she did in class.


 In 1962 the Grays made the critical decision to move to New York City, which had just recently replaced Paris as the art capital of the world. Their decision was both logical and sound. Where else in the United States, after all, would they be able to see so much of the very latest and best in art? And where else could they be challenged so meaningfully and be so inspired to improve themselves while establishing careers in art?


 For Evans, the paintings in New York's museums were a revelation. In her words, "To actually see the paintings I had only seen in books was a miracle. It was almost a shock to see that they were actually made of paint . . . I was reassured by the fact that Van Gogh painted quickly and was able to put down such forceful and often detailed images. I loved the vibrating colors of Bonnard, and the moodiness of a lot of Homer's darker works. I appreciated all the Impressionists . . . as well as the Post-Impressionists . . . and early 20th Century artists such as Soutine, Nolde and Kokoschka."


 She was also very taken by New York itself with its "anything goes" attitude that allowed its citizens to look the way they wanted and act the way they wished. She also liked the ever-changing, around-the-clock movement of traffic and people, the bright lights, and most of all, the fact that anything could happen at a moment's notice, from impromptu concerts at street corners to artists drawing small crowds while sketching on a sidewalk.


 She herself set up her painting equipment on the street, but usually only with fellow artists. Over the years, she and Don befriended several painters whose approach to art was similar to theirs in that it stressed direct painterly engagement with their subjects rather than involvement with one or another of the current modernist styles. Some of these artists had met while painting in Times Square at night, but all shared the belief that significant art demanded direct engagement with reality and not adherence to a formalist theory or obedience to a dead academic realist tradition. This belief led to the formation of the Street Painters, a loosely-knit group of like-minded artists who exhibited together which included Jessie and Don Gray among its more active members.


 By 1968, however, the Grays, after several failed attempts to find a loft large enough to accommodate their ever-increasing number of paintings, decided reluctantly to leave the city. Their search for a new home took them further and further away from Manhattan until, finally, 65 miles northwest of the city, near Florida, New York, they found an old farmhouse situated in the middle of a 240-acre dairy farm.


 Both were delighted by their good fortune, especially since they were now deeply immersed in nature. Jessie states that she hadn't realized until they got there just how much she had missed the outdoors. "Just to see a tangle of dead grasses and weeds, nature unmanicured, flocks of birds, swirls of leaves, and then to see spring slowly push forward into great abundance made me realize why I could never 'turn on' to Central Park as nature. It had the hand of man on it and wasn't wild and free enough."


 She adds, "Florida, New York, was where my art exploded. Not only was nature free, but I was. I could go anywhere for hours and paint."


 And that's exactly what she did. "Nature", she says, "Changed so drastically, between seasons and weather, that I saw it differently each time . . . I painted it in fair weather with white cumulous clouds and green fields, blazing in heat, in storms, at sunset, in snow. This scene to me had a mythic quality. It seemed like the classic 'country view'. My large canvases I either lay flat or propped against the side of our van . . . Since New York gets 60 inches of rain a year, something was always happening in the sky. I often wished I could paint ten paintings at once. I would stay out all day, and at dusk, walked towards home down the long lane to the yellow-orange lights in the windows of our little house glowing out of the dark woodsy trees surrounding it like a magical storybook setting."


 Except for portions of summers spent in a cabin in Maine, the Grays remained in their upper New York state farmhouse until 1988 when they decided to return to their roots in Arizona. For both of them, the days spent in Maine had a special quality. They slept in the cabin's screened-in porch to the sound of surf and fog horns, and spent as much time as possible during the days painting. Jessie remembers that often at dawn she would douse herself with bug repellant and walk through the wet grass and marsh mud with rising bursts of mosquitoes, and paint the sunrise.

"Starting out to paint one thing, like a sunrise", she says, "leads to a totally new concept as everything changes, and each new configuration seems equally interesting. So often my paintings ended up with the sun high in the sky . . . Fair weather clouds almost danced above the marsh. A breeze usually kicked up. There was always the sound of the nearby surf, seagulls, cormorants, and salt smell . . . Being in nature is so different from just looking at a picture. Unexpected things always happen . . . Entire moods change. Somehow what the artist is feeling can more readily be combined with the subject at hand . . . Many subtle symbols evolve in the work, like myths, based on contrasts between light and dark, warm and cool colors, water and land, animal and human shapes, cosmic configurations."


 In 1988, after several trips back and forth between east and west, the Grays decided to settle in Arizona permanently. Although, in many ways, it meant "coming home," it also meant leaving a different way of life. Evans has no regret that she lived in the east for so many years. Summing it up, she says, "If I had stayed in the west, I don't think I would have learned what good painting is. I wouldn't have been able to see and analyze and at least hope to understand great art. I wouldn't have been buffeted against so many serious artists who knew about art. I wouldn't have been an observer . . . of the art of the last thirty years and have learned to understand what made a great deal of it superficial and more about words than about art. I wouldn't have experienced the condensed energy of Manhattan and the quickness of mind it produces . . . Most important, I don't think I would feel so creatively self-contained as I do now."


 "Grand" is the word that first springs to mind when describing Evans' vision and creative ambition. "Expansive" and "dramatic" also apply. But "grand", in the final analysis, says it best.


 We see the proof in such paintings as "Sun Through Clouds,"  "Dawn," "Mesa Valley Sunset," "Rain #1," and "Brave Boat Harbor Tide, Maine". And that is only a very small sampling of Evans' landscapes in which grandeur and spaciousness are the key to the effectiveness of their compositions.


 There is a majestic sweep and an all-embracing openness to Evans' landscapes that set them apart from those of any other painter working today. We may think of Burchfield and two or three others of recent years, but the comparison fails once we are confronted by a variety of her images. She is more direct, more uncompromising and, in the final analysis, more daringly imaginative and formally inventive than her earlier or more recent contemporaries. She is also more willing to take risks and to trust in her instincts and intuitions—in this she comes close to the original Abstract Expressionists—and freer to use color in whatever way she deems most appropriate, even if it means coming dangerously close at times to producing a blatant or garish effect.


 There is nothing timid or tentative about Evans' work. She embraces nature totally and, if not with abandon—she is too good an artist for that—then certainly with an open heart and mind and a willingness to let nature take the lead in whatever creative dialogue may ensue. She is not a passive participant, however. Far from it. She brings as much to the creative act as nature itself, and frequently with a passion and clarity of purpose that cannot help but result in

powerfully original work.


 Evans doesn't strive to be original. She just is. This writer doesn't believe for a minute that she wouldn't have become as fine an artist as she is if she had stayed in the west and never gone to New York. What she knows about art is native to her. She knows what she's doing when she strives for a successful transformation into art of a dynamic and highly personal engagement with nature at a particular place and at a particular moment in time. To facilitate this she challenges nature to bring out the best in her, to open her up to deeper and ever-greater dimensions of feeling, insight, and sensibility so as to bring her ever closer to full awareness of the awesome wholeness of which the landscape she is painting is merely the surface reality. In the process, she searches for subjects that will enable her to experience nature at its most immediate and elemental; that will challenge her to draw out of herself, out of her life-long experience with the craft of painting, whatever formal and coloristic devices she needs to transform her perceptual, emotional, and aesthetic experiences into a painting that is at least true to the spirit of the subject, and that exists in its own right as a work of art.


 That is not an easy thing to do for it requires a level of passion and commitment, to say nothing of a very special talent, with which very few painters are equipped. But even that is not enough. To do what Evans does, an artist must also produce work so compact and "all of a piece" that "the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts."


 It should be obvious by now that what Evans creates is indeed grand and expansive, that her paintings are much more than factual replications of what can be found in nature. As she puts it, "When I paint, I don't want to create in a literal, photographic sense but in an interpretive sense . . . I want to convey the essence of what something means to me as I am actually seeing and feeling it." At times, while painting outdoors, she experiences what she describes as internal music seemingly produced either by a full orchestra or by individual instruments such as violins, flutes, or trumpets. At other times, what she hears resembles nothing so much as an explosion of cymbals and bells. In the painting named Dawn, for instance, the landscape was a full orchestra. Rich melodic chords created beautiful coloristic effects. In "Sedona Rainbow," on the other hand, the effect was grander and more sweeping. More like Dvorak's "New World Symphony" is how she describes it.


 What all this indicates is that, for Evans, painting outdoors is a dynamic, multi-faceted, creative experience that not only draws on all her painterly resources but also activates other internal sensory responses such as sounds and music, and then challenges her to imaginatively utilize them in ways that give added formal and coloristic dimensions to her work.


 The sounds of nature—or the absence of them—have always figured prominently in Evans' life. As a young girl she sometimes climbed a breadfruit tree near her family home and looked out across unbroken desert to the distant mountains. There would be endless space but no sound. Suddenly, a propeller plane might appear, drone on for a moment, and then disappear, leaving total silence behind. That combination of sound and silence gave her the feeling that she was experiencing a small, fleeting moment in the awesome immensity of space. At other times, all would be quiet except for the cooing of a few doves or the humming of locusts and she would experience a slightly haunted feeling as though she was sensing the universe turning or the passage of eons of time. And those feelings persisted. She says that she still sometimes feels that way today while painting in front of a vast expanse of space.


 This sensitivity to space and sound plays a vital role in Evans' work, as does her intuitive understanding that nothing is permanently static or solid in this universe, that everything is dynamically alive and in constant motion.


 This understanding is translated directly into her work. Everything in an Evans painting is alive and pulsating with energy, an effect she achieves by various means, but most especially by pushing color to its chromatic extremes when necessary, and by making maximum use of imaginatively evocative "abstract" shapes that give power and bite to her images, especially those that depict nature at its wildest and most elemental.


 A perfect example of the latter is "Rain #1," a small acrylic painting of the 1990's that is one of Evans' finest landscapes. Under black, threatening clouds and an obscured sun, a sudden cloudburst falls diagonally upon a low mountain landscape. The setting is dramatic and oddly ominous, due partly to the massive bank of black clouds and to a red-orange strip of sky visible just above the low-lying mountains and below the clouds, but mostly because of two boldly abstracted black cloud-like shapes, one of which effectively blocks the sun, while the other looms aggressively against a small area of blue sky left untouched by the coming storm.


 No matter how one looks at it, this is a remarkable painting, and more significant than it might at first appear. In its own highly personal way, it plays the blunt, gut-searing directness of Abstract Expressionism at its best (think of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell) against the sweeping, all-embracing romanticism of the Hudson River School (Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt). The abstracted cloud-shapes are almost demonic in their aggressive, light-denying blatancy. The top cloud, in particular, resembles nothing so much as a primal beast delighting in its ability to block the sun's light and, by extension,

life itself.


 As for color, without the red-orange strip of sky that introduces a touch of life and passion into the composition and the tiny area of blue sky in the upper-right corner, there would be no true drama in this painting and no indication for us that, in this simple desert landscape, an artist produced not only a beautiful and moving image, but also a pictorial metaphor for the life/death drama that occupies so much of our attention.


 In its own way, "Rain #1" follows in the tradition established by El Greco in his famous "View of Toledo," exemplified more recently by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Burchfield. There is, of course, the question of whether or not Evans would have felt free to be this bold and blunt had she not lived through the period in which Abstract Impressionism was the dominant mode of painting. We will never know, but one suspects the "influence" was minimal, if it existed at all. Not that it matters. All artists of quality interact creatively with living tradition and, at least to a degree, with the most dominant of their contemporaries. What matters is what results from such an interaction, and in Evans' case, that is an art of undeniable sweep, power, and originality.


 "Storm Over Glenmere" is an even more audacious image. It is large—

eight feet wide—and was painted in upstate New York a decade or so earlier than "Rain #1". Once again there is a low-lying landscape totally dominated by what appear to be abstracted cloud-shapes, but which could just as well be pictorial manifestations of the musical impulses Evans often experiences when painting outdoors. But no matter. It is an amazing work, sophisticated in its formal and coloristic inventiveness, but stunningly primal in effect. Furthermore, if one takes into consideration that it was painted outdoors in stormy weather with the canvas attached to the Grays' van or some other large object, one cannot help but be impressed by Evans' focus and determination.


 According to Evans, she sees "abstract" forms in all of nature. "For me, an underlying abstract composition has to be the foundation of representational art, but the two are one and not separated . . . To reduce the external or even the internal world to stylized elementary abstract shapes is to create only half a painting. These shapes become much more meaningful to me when they assume the individuality of the visual world."


 In other words, a circle is more meaningful to her in a painting if it is also a moon, a flower, or a human head. And a black organic shape is more meaningful as art if it is also a dark, threatening cloud.


 What Evans has to say about movement in her work is revealing. "Clouds move. It is impossible to achieve a re-creation of what is literally there . . . Since clouds and light shift constantly, the way I paint clouds is to gather images and shapes from everywhere in the sky and intuitively place them so that I 'feel' their overall rhythm and design on the canvas . . . I have learned to respond and paint quickly, reacting to the shapes and placements until a balance and at the same time a tension is created . . . I am intuiting and just responding visually without analyzing every stroke. I have to paint fast with sky-scapes. That is good. I don't have time to intellectualize."


 This approach has brought striking results, especially in paintings that represent nature at its most dramatic, and where there is a particular emphasis on light/dark contrasts. "Storm," a medium-sized acrylic, is a good example and one that demonstrates how effective Evans can be when she has to "paint fast" and doesn't have "time to intellectualize."


 Once again, in this picture, bold, black, organic cloud-shapes that totally dominate the sky aggressively block the sun. All of the shapes are in restless motion, and all were obviously painted at top speed. On the basis of style and execution alone one could legitimately assume that this work was painted by an Abstract Expressionist working outdoors. It is not only raw and uncompromising, the forms are undeniably both "abstract" and "expressionistic" as well. And yet there can be no doubt that this is a painting of a stormy landscape. It might not depict the physical appearance of such a landscape in detail, but it succeeds brilliantly in communicating something of the drama and excitement that can be produced by a storm that comes up suddenly and theatrically.


 "Sun Through Clouds" is another "black clouds blocking the sun" landscape, but this one shows evidence of more deliberate paint handling. It is also quite classical in its approach and one of the most monumental of Evans' medium-sized canvases. In it one can see what she means when she says that she works to create both balance and tension in her compositions. It also demonstrates how she re-arranges, eliminates, and exaggerates landscape elements in whatever way she feels necessary to enliven the composition and to give it the energy and emotional resonance it needs.


 "Sunset," a small acrylic of tremendous controlled power and surprising elegance, considering the level of energy that it embodies, is another work in which a successful contrapuntal relationship between balance and tension has been achieved. It is both a superb depiction of its subject and an exquisitely composed work as well. Remove even one element in the composition, no matter how small or inconsequential, and its absence will immediately be noted.


 "Eye in the Clouds" is totally different. It is joyous in mood, symphonic in scope, and benign in effect. Most remarkable, however, is the highly imaginative manner in which Evans transformed a wonderfully rich and dramatic landscape experience into a totally convincing but barely representational painted image. Once again, she proves the wisdom of following her instincts and intuitions in whatever direction the situation demands.


 Color is another expressive device Evans utilizes in an original and often startlingly direct manner. She has few if any pre-conceived notions as to how color must be used beyond the obvious dictates that, if possible, grass should be green and the sky blue. Note that "if possible," for should she feel that purple and orange would be more appropriate for the effect she wants, then purple and orange it will be.


 That is a marvelous attitude to have, but only if one can make such "dangerous" combinations work without producing unpleasantly clashing or garish results. Evans not only manages to avoid such disastrous results, she often succeeds in producing color effects that shouldn't work but that do so in novel and often surprising ways.


 "Red Sky" easily crosses the border between a naturalistic and a visionary view of nature. And yet we accept this richly imaginative and profoundly original interpretation with its odd color combinations and strange, invented shapes as a sensitive artist's genuine response to an actual, highly dramatic outdoor experience.


 We do so primarily because of its color. Evans' simplified, somewhat agitated organic forms, especially the blue snake-like cloud at upper right, also do their bit to give formal and expressive credence to this image. Although quite large—65" x 55"—this painting is a small miracle and one of Evans' finest creations. With its startlingly dramatic fusion of color, form and design, it stands alone among her work.


 "Mesa Valley Sunset" takes us from the wildly dramatic to the gently lyrical. In it, the sun is about to set over a rolling desert landscape. Warm colors predominate. Even the cooler colors of the distant hills and several of the clouds have been affected by the warmth of the sun. Everything is calm and peaceful. One more day is coming to an end. A simple and straightforward painting? Far from it, thanks to Evans' sophisticated use of color and the sensitive and shrewd manner in which she plays off several slowly approaching violet-tinged clouds against the hot, pure yellow circle of the sun. It's an extraordinary performance, made all the more memorable by a semi-circular area of raw green centered at the very bottom which both anchors the composition and provides just the right amount of color tension to give bite to the painting. One more observation: the small, bright red section of cliff just above the green is a brilliant touch. Darken it to match the color of the cliffs on either side, and the composition loses much of its effectiveness. All in all, a near-perfect performance.


 Color also plays a dominant role in "Winged Cloud #1" and "Rain and Setting Sun". The former is a fairly large canvas, the latter a small acrylic. Both, however, are equally effective, although in very different ways. "Winged Cloud #1" is grandly operatic in sweep and scope. White and violet-tinged clouds swoop downward like so many winged entities toward a yellow-orange, low-horizon landscape. The feeling throughout is joyous, even exultant. Borrowing Evans' statement about hearing internal music while painting, it would appear that what she heard during this painting's creation must have been something on the order of Beethoven's grand conclusion to his "Ninth Symphony".


 "Rain and Setting Sun," on the other hand, is much more restrained and even somewhat somber in mood. Although we take note of the painting's swirling clouds, sudden cloudburst, and setting sun, what really gets our attention is the fact that the work's effectiveness depends almost entirely on its dramatic interplay between cool and warm colors. These range from dark blue to bright red, and are not only the heart and soul of the painting, but the source of most of its drama as well.


 Finally and without further analysis, mention must be made of "Crescent Moon," a beautiful and haunting smallish acrylic that, in its humble way, epitomizes just about everything that is special about nocturnal landscapes.


 Grandeur and spaciousness have a long and distinguished tradition in American art. Landscape painting, in particular, has faithfully addressed America's passion for wide open spaces and dramatic vistas. Even when the great outdoors was temporarily replaced as a suitable subject for art by the agitated non-representationalism of Abstract Expressionism, space and scale remained central to that movement's ideals and objectives.


 From the Hudson River School's Cole and Bierstadt to Abstract Expressionism's Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock, expansiveness has played a vital role in giving voice and form to America's perception of itself as a westward-moving pioneer nation. Even today, James Turrell celebrates the wide open spaces in his "Rodin Crater Project" by utilizing an extinct volcanic crater as a "viewing platform" from which one can witness the awesome beauty and significance of earthly and celestial space.


 Evans fits easily into this tradition. Even in her quieter and more lyrical landscapes, there is a feeling that the views depicted are part of a much larger and more expansive geographic area, one in which nature can, at a moment's notice, turn either violent and destructive or overwhelmingly beautiful and inspiring. Both of nature's extremes serve Evans well, and both can be found in fairly equal measure in her work. As for her delight in nature's more dramatic moods, she writes, "I seem to respond to storms and the overpowering elements of nature, first, because visually, they are dramatic and speak of the stupendous. Something is happening. They are visually just plain exciting. Second, nature has tremendous forces at work. Watching lightning, or the sun create layers of hot red clouds against a turquoise green sky, or thunderheads reaching 50,000 feet, one feels almost a vibrating electric charge, as if one is in touch with the force that created the universe. This force is neither benevolent nor malevolent—it is both and neither, it just 'is'."


 Evans' work at its best is profoundly celebratory and even, at times, ecstatic, with all of nature's elements participating in one grand exultant display of wide-ranging energies.


 "Dawn" is an eight-foot wide painting that beautifully demonstrates the celebratory nature of some of Evans' more expansive canvases. In describing its genesis, she writes, "'Dawn' was painted after a terrific night storm. Racing out to see the receding clouds the next morning, I watched the clouds part, framing the sunrise. Only later did I realize that I had created the clouds in a pelvic shape, and that the painting symbolized rebirth—of the soul and, in a literal sense, of myself and my return to the west."


 No matter how convincing Evans' interpretation of this painting may be, and even taking into account that she was, after all, its creator, we still have to acknowledge that her interpretation was "after the fact." Indeed, to a large extent, the effectiveness of this image is due to the many ways it can be viewed, from a depiction of an unusual atmospheric event all the way to a physical manifestation of a spiritual experience, with any number of variations in between.


 What sets Evans apart from other artists similarly interested in painting wide open Western spaces—and Georgia O'Keeffe springs to mind here—is the amount of energy her work contains or is about to release. Compared to Evans' canvases, O'Keeffe's appear somewhat static and even decorative at times. Evans is interested in the dynamics of natural occurrences. She deals in process, in watching nature move and expand and then become first one thing and then another. O'Keeffe was more interested in design and sentiment, in producing images that, as often as not, became handsome or pretty icons rather than beautiful or dynamic works of art.


 Burchfield, obviously, is the American artist closest to Evans in spirit, but even here a significant distinction must be noted. For all their extraordinary ability to capture and communicate nature's boundless energy in its various manifestations—from the quiet emergence of the first flower of spring to nature on a rampage—his art remains more earthbound than that of Evans. This is by no means a criticism of his art—he is and will always remain one of the finest American painters of the twentieth century—but it is true nevertheless that Evans' landscapes tend to be more cosmic than his in substance and spirit.


 "Dawn" underscores this observation. Whatever it might "mean," this painting depicts a cosmic event. Or at least that is what Evans caused it to become during the process of painting. It proves, as noted earlier, that she is far from being a passive participant, and that she brings as much to the creative act as nature itself. At the same time, it cannot be denied that this is a very handsome painting, that it is well-designed, and that its formal and coloristic elements are sensitively and judiciously handled. And yet that is not what this painting is about. Not at all. What it is about has more to do with exultation, with freedom of spirit, with the sheer joy of being alive on a morning when such a beautiful and moving event occurred, and then having the talent and vision necessary to transform that event into art.


 We must remember that, while discussing how she often experiences internal music while painting outdoors, she stated that while working on "Dawn," the landscape resonated with the power of a full orchestra sending out radiant harmonic effects. We must, of course, take her word for that, although, to this observer, the painting itself seems to corroborate her statement.


 "Sangre de Cristo Sun Rays" and "Sangre de Cristo Sunset" are strikingly alike in subject and size—both are seven feet wide—and were obviously painted from the exact same spot. And yet there are subtle but significant differences between them.


 Both are three-tier compositions with cloud banks at the top, the sun shining downward through the clouds at center, and a mountainous desert landscape at the bottom. Of the two, "Sangre de Cristo Sunset" is more serene and tightly composed while "Sangre de Cristo Sun Rays" is more agitated and complex. Both are impressive and worthy of respect. "Sangre de Cristo Sun Rays" is richer and more intriguingly detailed. Its clouds form fascinating patterns and twist and turn in novel ways. And the rays of its sun are dramatically diffused as they descend to spread their light on the landscape below.  "Sangre de Cristo Sunset," on the other hand, is simpler and more straightforward.

The issue of wholeness, where every element in a painting falls perfectly into place, plays an important role in Evans' art. For all its spectacular effects— the dramatic interplay between earth and sky and occasional depictions of violence—her art is essentially holistic in spirit. She may delight in and feel wonderfully challenged by nature at its wildest, but she is not so much intent on capturing it at those moments as she is in creating a vibrant, self-contained image of the event that is powerful, true, and evocative enough to trigger a positive and sympathetic response in the viewer.


 In short, she is not out in the wind and rain or viewing a glorious sunrise at dawn just for kicks. She is out there to enter into a private, passionate "dialogue" with nature, and to bring back the result of that confrontation for others to see and experience.


 Simply stated, painting, for Evans, is a transformative act, and ultimately an act of sharing. But for it to work, she must do all she can to "package" her experience in such a way that viewers will see and feel at least something of what she saw and felt. And that requires vision, focus, experience, and skill.


 All four attributes come together beautifully in "Rainbow," a 50" x 70" painting that demonstrates her "packaging" ability at its most fascinating and dramatic. One can only imagine how pleased she must have been upon its completion, for it is that rare thing, a work of art that successfully integrates total opposites into one self-contained coherent whole. Darkness and light—and by implication, death and life—interact contrapuntally against one another in this painting and are kept in perfect balance throughout by Evans' ability to find exactly the right forms, colors, and compositional devices to "freeze" this highly dramatic outdoor event into a powerfully iconic and, if one wishes to see it that way, metaphoric work of art.


 This painting deserves careful study, not only for its daring juxtaposition of opposites, but for its formal inventiveness as well. The dark clouds, which are vaguely reminiscent of large, frisky animals at play, occupy various positions in three-dimensional space without in any way violating the picture's sense of reality. And the rainbow, cutting across the sky, not only completes and anchors the design; it adds a needed touch of warmth and color as well. This may not be among the most beautiful of her landscapes, but it is certainly among the most impressive and imaginative. All in all, a remarkable performance.


 "Thunderhead," a 50" x 60" canvas, is another impressive but this time somewhat problematic painting. Once again, threatening thunderclouds dominate the sky over a desert mountain landscape. This time, however, the clouds are light in color. They sweep across the sky, but unfortunately—largely, one suspects, because of the speed of Evans' execution—they end up resembling a huge sea-shell rather than a thundercloud. And yet, it's an intriguing work, full of passion and power, and certainly worthy of respect.


 "Sunburst" is a blunt, almost savage image that points up once again how close Evans comes at times to an Abstract Expressionist level of directness and intensity. It is not only successful, it is unique. The juxtaposition of explosive sunburst and dark, brooding landscape beneath it is a master stroke.


 At the other extreme are "Sunrays over Camelback Mountain" and "Arizona Bright Sunset". Both are peaceful and serene images, and prove that Evans is as interested in the quieter aspects of nature as she is in its storms and other dramatic events.


 For further proof we need only go to "Brave Boat Harbor Tide, Maine," which presents us with a subject as far removed from her hot and dry desert scenes as one can get. Not only do we see wet, sparkling water stretching far into the distance, we also quickly become aware that it is the earth itself that dominates the composition and not the sky as is so often the case in her western paintings.


 This painting's color and composition as well as its superb handling of space are particularly impressive. We delight in Evans' skillful interplay between warm and cool colors, and the sensitive manner in which she orchestrates the many irregular shapes that make up the composition so that our attention is gradually drawn from the grassy area at the bottom to the tiny island and the sun at top. This is a marvelous painting and one of her best. It is also one of the finest recent depictions of the Maine coastline this writer has seen.


 "Sunrise on Salt Flats, Maine" is another painting of a coastal scene, this time viewed dramatically from above. We look down upon a cluster of marshes and salt-flats extending into the distance toward a small island glimpsed immediately beneath the rising sun. Although it is realistic in effect, the composition appears at first glance to consist almost exclusively of near-abstract land forms interspersed here and there by narrow, sun-struck bodies of water. Again, as in "Brave Boat Harbor Tide, Maine" our eye is drawn gently but inexorably toward the distant horizon, with the sun spreading a radiant, glistening sheen over the entire composition.


 What these two paintings prove, and "Brave Boat Harbor, Maine" and "Seapoint Beach Snow, Maine" do as well, is that Evans' response to nature is profound and genuine no matter where she paints, and that she treats nature with respect especially in regard to the individual character of whatever she chooses to depict. In her words, "Artistically, I feel that both the east and west are in my psyche. I am drawn to the deep and dark somber colors of the east, which are also here in the northern mountains around Santa Fe and Taos and the higher elevations of the west. In the desert, colors get lighter—there is so much intense light most of the time."


 One further image from Maine before we move on. "Gulf Sign, Snow, Pier, Maine" is a delightfully deceptive little painting. At first glance it appears to be about man's permanent presence in nature. However, if we look carefully at the ominous sky and the dark body of water, we quickly realize that what this painting is really about is how temporary the presence of both snow and man are in the face of nature's awesome power.


 Evans is not necessarily making a point here. One suspects that something in this view of a Gulf gasoline sign, a mound of snow, a pier extending over the water, and a dark, threatening sky, intrigued and challenged her. And yet, what an artist chooses to paint is very often significant, especially if he or she is a serious creative individual. Evans is, of course, and so this image should be seen within the overall context of her work. And what connects this painting most particularly with her other outdoor scenes? Drama and contrast, of course, and a fascination with nature at its most theatrical and revealing.


 If there is one painting that most fully represents the depth and scope of Evans' vision and creative ambition, it almost certainly is "Sangre de Aspens Over Tesuque". None of her other paintings are quite as grand, as sweeping, as majestic or, to put it simply, as "complete." It may not represent or include all of what she envisions and wants to express, but one senses that it comes closer than the others. That is not to say that it is her finest creation. There are others, several of which we have already discussed, that share that honor. But it is the one that, should the rest of her paintings be lost, would most fully inform us about who Jessie Benton Evans is as a painter, and about the quality and nature of what she is devoting her life to putting down on canvas and paper.


 "Sangre de Cristo Aspens Over Tesuque" is a truly celebratory painting. It radiates joy and a wonderful sense of peace and wholeness. Everything in it is in perfect harmony, from the clouds above to the mountains and hills below. At dead center, a triangular yellow mountain juts upward to meet the sun's rays shining down upon it. All in all, a simple, even classical depiction of a desert mountain landscape on a hot and windswept day. And yet in Evans' hands, it becomes a profoundly moving image with reverential—one might even say spiritual—overtones.


 Anyone writing about today's art realizes how dangerous the word "spiritual" can be if used in an art-critical context, and how likely it is to be misinterpreted by those who view the word in purely metaphysical terms. That, of course, is not what is intended here—although one must admit that it is possible to see how it might be used in that fashion when discussing this particular work. It is so joyous, so exultant, so wonderfully whole and "all of a piece" that it seems almost like a paean of praise directed upward toward a divine being.


 Even the sun appears to partake of this joyous occasion by sending its "blessing" downward toward the mountains, an effect Evans underscored by fashioning a double triangular composition with the sun, hidden behind the clouds, forming the apex of the larger triangle and the top of the yellow mountain at center forming the apex of the smaller one.


 The overall effect is grand, benign and, yes, spiritual. On top of that, it is beautifully painted with rich, sensitively orchestrated color and exactly the amount of authenticating detail needed to give credence to the sweeping panorama of this wonderfully life-affirming composition.


 As noted before, being passionately life-affirming is suspect in today's art world, especially when it comes to landscape painting. Evans, of course, pays no attention to such nonsense. In her paintings, life always asserts itself, whether through a dramatic cloudburst, a rainbow illuminating the sky, or a panoramic, sun-drenched desert landscape. In fact, the way life invariably bursts through in one or another form is often the real subject of her art.


 As we've seen, Evans takes particular delight in storms. As she says, "Watching lightning or the sun create layers of hot red clouds against a turquoise green sky . . . one feels almost a vibrating electric charge, as if one is in touch with the force that created the universe."


 Now that is Evans the landscape painter in a nutshell! Not that she touches that level in all of her paintings, but it is there implicitly in most of them, even if it remains just below the surface. It is obviously there in her violent storm scenes and it is there, in a much more benign way in "Sangre de Cristo Aspens Over Tesuque". It may not take the form of a powerful, vibrating electric charge in this painting, but the extraordinarily high level of creative energy to which she refers is there nevertheless.


 Evans is a champion of the life-force. It resonates at the center of all but a few of her landscapes, and helps define her vision as a whole. Her best paintings seem to hum and—to borrow one of her favorite words—"vibrate" with life energies. In a way, one could say that what she paints represents "energy made visible."


 Now, of course, that can be said of all painters with an expressionist orientation, most particularly such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann. And yet, there is one major difference between what these artists produced and the work of Evans that sets them far apart.


 In order to address that, however, we must first go back to something we have already discussed: Evans' conviction that significant art must be based on perceived reality. To quote her once again, "To reduce the external or even the internal world to stylized elementary abstract shapes is to create only half a painting. These shapes become much more meaningful to me when they assume the individuality of the visual world we sense and are part of."


 In other words, art to be significant must be grounded in the appearances and forms of physical reality as well as in the issues, values, and ideals of human society.


 She is not alone in this position. Far from it. But what does set her apart from most other representational painters is how often she uses blatantly "abstract" shapes to capture and communicate certain aspects of nature, especially when it is in a particularly stormy or expansive mood. And just as important are the parallels that exist between her bold, occasionally aggressive paint-handling and the manner in which the Abstract Expressionists attacked their canvases.


 In "Rain #1," for example, the black cloud forms at the top project a blunt, passionate, no-holds-barred approach to painting generally only found in such Abstract Expressionists as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. And that parallel is even more apparent in "Storm," "Rainbow," and "Storm Over Glenmere".


 Of course, that's where the similarity ends. Kline and Motherwell denied any specific dependence on nature in their work. Evans, on the other hand, utilizes the forms and forces of nature to give credence and significance to what she sees, feels and senses most deeply in the presence of a wide variety of natural events. Her work is always reality-based, never abstract or stylized - although she does come close to the latter on rare occasions ("Sun Over Mts. Adam and Eve" and "Going West").


 At the same time, Evans has very little in common with the vast majority of today's landscape painters, most of whom are perfectly content to mechanically record nature's precise appearance in painstaking, mindless detail, or to trivialize it by transforming it into blatantly formalist or sentimentally appealing images.


 Evans would never be content with either approach. And neither could she ever decide to paint in an abstract or abstract-expressionist mode. She is too independent-minded and creatively passionate for that. So where does that leave her in today's art world which has turned its back on so many of the things she is most passionate about? Is she an outsider, a talented but somewhat idiosyncratic creator who nevertheless has consistently received support from her peers, from collectors, and from committed art professionals, and so has managed to survive creatively and to remain true to her convictions for these past several, often difficult, decades? Is she, in short, just another exceptionally gifted painter who has built a career through sheer talent? Or is she actually, as painter/critic Elaine de Kooning asserts, a highly original creator who "has given landscape concepts a new dimension?"


 It is difficult to see how anyone who takes Evans seriously as a painter could fail to agree with de Kooning's assessment. This writer does agree and has done so since he first became acquainted with Evans' paintings roughly twenty years ago. If anything, studying her work in depth, as he has had to do for this essay, has only strengthened his appreciation of her highly personal and distinctive approach. She is an original, and a special one at that, as even a casual study of her paintings should make abundantly clear.


 But if that's true, why isn't she better known? Artists with considerably less vision and talent have scored dramatically well in the gallery and museum world in recent years, and several have become marginally famous. What, if anything, has she failed to do? It isn't as though she hasn't exhibited regularly and successfully, both in the east and in the west. And neither is it a matter of a shortage of collectors nor the fact that she is a woman.


 No. It has to do with her strengths, with the very things that make her work so outstanding and original. As we have seen, landscapes, to be acknowledged officially, are expected to be detached, subtly formalized, or topographically exact in every detail. Any evidence of grandeur or joyousness is out, as is any indication of passion.


 Evans, of course, cannot conform to these strictures. Indeed, it speaks well both of the art professionals who have supported her and of the strength and quality of her work that she has done as well as she has professionally without succumbing to art-world fashion or commercial pressure.


 One of the most remarkable things about Evans and her painter-husband Don Gray is that they are as fully committed to their artistic values and ideals today as they were forty or so years ago. They are both highly creative and thoroughly professional. In fact, if one looks beyond fashion, gimmickry, and novelty to art of substance, one quickly becomes aware that it is they and other artists like them who constitute the real art world, not the many clever and shrewdly ambitious individuals whose work fills most of today's galleries and art magazines and even, unfortunately, some of today's more celebrated museums.


 Strong words? Perhaps. But the point must be made. Not that there aren't a number of excellent artists of substance who do well in galleries in New York and around the country. And neither can one deny that some of the fashionably successful painters and sculptors one most often reads about are talented and creative. No, it isn't so much a matter of talent and creativity or their absence as it is a question of what one does or doesn't do with these attributes if one has them.


 In the case of Evans and her husband, the answer is obvious: one uses talent to give shape and meaning to one's existence by allowing it to engage life, and creativity to add a symbolic, metaphoric, or aesthetic dimension to the various realities—physical, emotional, social, or philosophical—that most concern one. What one doesn't do is examine the market place, determine what kind of art will most likely lead to the greatest success, and then adapt one's talents and creative ambitions accordingly.


 The question is: Does art lead or does it follow? Is art special—a unique human endeavor capable of envisioning new realities, of suggesting new and greater possibilities, even of moving mankind toward deeper levels of understanding and meaning—or is it just one more commodity designed either to satisfy the elite or to please the greatest number of viewers as smoothly and easily as possible and with the least amount of offense?


 Unfortunately, art today is more likely to be perceived primarily as a valuable commodity than was the case even as recently as thirty years ago. A visit to any of the major auction houses or a glance through their auction catalogs will more than confirm this. Furthermore, if one considers the fact that more and more galleries and museums are devoting increasing amounts of space to technologically and sociologically oriented creative concepts—computer, performance, and environmental art, for example—one begins to understand why the opportunities for paintings of substance that neither cater nor conform become slimmer and slimmer all the time.


 It is within this professionally difficult but challenging environment that Evans has not only stuck to her guns but has flourished creatively. It hasn't always been easy. As she says, "The struggle comes from creating the art itself, solving artistic problems, and continuing to push oneself artistically. Artists compete with themselves—the internal stress is enough. They want to push their creative vision and technique as far as they can go, which means that they are always under stress to do more and better."


 It is obvious that she will never compromise. But that isn't all there is to it. In art, integrity, creative passion, lifelong commitment, even talent, mean little if vision is absent or clouded and quality is in short supply. In Evans' case, both are obviously and emphatically present, and on a level and to a degree found in relatively few of her contemporaries.


 Obviously, Evans should have the last word. "My main feeling now is of a great need to paint . . . so that when the course is run, I can feel I 'did' it . . . I want to paint an intensity into my work . . . If I lived ten lifetimes, I could not paint all that I wish I could paint. I have ideas for huge monumental paintings with concepts that I have never seen anyone paint before. I hope I can accomplish them."




1. All statements by the artist are from written communications with the author


Copyright by Jessie Benton Evans



Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms