Mary Page Evans considers an old watercolor painting tacked to the wall of her studio—like so many others—of the beach at Rehoboth. There are tidy planes of sky and sand in a wash of blue and yellow divided by a line of colorful umbrellas. The work hangs under a more recent painting, in oil, of a seascape in Florida that she’s been working on for some time.
Evans found the old Rehoboth painting while searching her studio with curator Heather Campbell Coyle of the Delaware Art Museum, looking for work to feature in the current retrospective, “Painted Poetry: The Art of Mary Page Evans.” During the museum’s centennial year, celebrating no less an esteemed figure than Howard Pyle—the very reason the museum was founded—Evans is the artist chosen to represent the current state of local painting, and it has caused her to reflect, just a bit, on her career and oeuvre.
Purple-framed readers perched atop her head, Evans steps back from the paintings and folds her arms across her chest. “I love seeing that the shapes of the umbrellas are the same as 40 years ago,” she says. “I’m very interested in mark making. Isn’t it interesting how you make the same marks all your life?”
Let’s not confuse the notion of making the same marks all one’s life with the idea of making the same art, because part of the appeal of assembling an exhibition of Evans’ work was the opportunity to show her growth over the past 50 years, and to demonstrate how she fits into a much larger conversation about art. “Painted Poetry” is a journey through time, styles, subjects and influences that places Evans, as much an expressionist as any expressionist working today, squarely in the tradition of painting from nature while forging a uniquely personal style that transcends her locality and her local popularity.
“One of the cool things is that she’s still doing interesting work, so over time she’s done enough for a retrospective,” says Coyle. “But with her seascapes from Florida, her landscapes in Shenandoah and her gardens from here, she’s also part of a regional-nation art conversation.”
Evans’ work is collected widely, especially by local admirers. It is as appealing to novice collectors as well as highly seasoned ones, says her rep, Chris Addison. Evans is represented in Wilmington by Carspecken- Scott Gallery and, in Washington, D.C., by Addison/Ripley Fine Art. Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski gave a favorable review of “Painted Poetry,” and Evans has earned the respect of some of the most critical artists who have worked during her lifetime. Joe and Jill Biden, longtime friends and, for the past few years, neighbors in Greenville, appreciate her work so much, they bought three paintings to hang in the vice president’s residence in D.C. The Bidens even made time to visit the show’s opening in April.
“It’s a big, big deal to have a museum show,” says Evans’ close friend, renowned painter Bill Scott of Philadelphia. “And it’s a big show.” One might point out that even Evans’ hero, Paul Cézanne, never had a museum show during his lifetime.
Yet for all the fun of the opening and the joy of seeing so many old friends over the course of the show so far, Evans doesn’t feel like a big deal.
“It’s just a flash in the pan,” she says. “I’ve been doing this 45 years. Next year, people will like something else. But people have said, ‘You’ve inspired me.’ That to me is very important. I want people to understand the importance of going to museums and looking at art. We need more art.”
Evans may be the youngest 75-year-old you could meet—and the most down-to-earth artist. She’s funny. Her speech, for all the drawl of her native tidewater Virginia, is quick and full of quotes that have seized her intellect—“Chance comes to the trained observer,” she says often—and random interjections: “I’ve got to get up to Philly and see that Van Gogh show. The looking, it’s all part of the work.” Her way is so easy and engaging, her occasional criticisms pass without being immediately noticed as such. “These politicians, they always want to get rid of the arts, cut funding for education—get rid of things that really matter. I don’t get it. Why don’t they get rid of war? What a waste.”
For a good bit of her time married to Thomas B. Evans Jr. (they celebrated 50 years in September), Mary Page was a politician’s wife, though not, each is quick to point out, a typical politician’s wife. “Most of them like politics,” Tom says. “Not Mary Page.” The fact makes him chuckle. “She never gossips. She never speaks negatively of anyone.”
After working two years as the state’s head of economic development under Gov. Russell W. Peterson, then as the co-chair of the Republican National Committee for two years, Tom was elected to represent Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served from 1977 till 1983. He once shared brandies with President Richard Nixon in private conversation at the White House. He came to call President Ronald Reagan a friend. Yet he attended most important political events solo while Mary Page painted.
“I loved the festivals and things like that,” she says. “Going out to Chrysler early in the morning, that was interesting. The Greek Festival, the Arden Fair—that was fun. And the parades. I think parades are fabulous. They’re lively. The music. They scream of patriotism. The fundraisers—forget about it.”
Through her, Tom, an avid golfer, came to appreciate the arts. He was able to help friends get appointed to the boards of art organizations and places like the Kennedy Center, and when the National Endowment for the Arts faced elimination under Reagan, he helped lead an effort to save it. It is work Evans is grateful for, even if she has little patience for politics.
“Politics is about compromise, and painting is not compromise. In painting, something has to dominate to make it work,” she says. “And artists are truthtellers. Politicians are not truthtellers.”
The couple met on a blind date while he was visiting Norfolk, Va., for the Oyster Bowl football game between the University of South Carolina and his recent alma mater, the University of Virginia, in 1959. Mary Page, from nearby Virginia Beach, was still a student at Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke.
Having studied piano seriously since she was 7 years old, Evans entered Hollins as a music major. She switched to art history when, through an inspiring professor, she discovered Cézanne. “I was especially pleased to look at Cézanne,” she says. “I was thrilled by the way he breaks up space, uses color to define it, loosens the form.”
After college, Evans briefly studied painting with Charles Sibley, perhaps Virginia’s most prominent painter at the time. Soon after marrying Tom and moving to Wilmington in 1961, she began classes with Ed Loper, then Tom Bostelle, two of the area’s most renowned painters. Bostelle remained a close friend until his death in 2005. She also day-tripped often to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., to see museum exhibits, concerts and dance performances. She remains as voracious a consumer of art as she is a prodigious maker of it.
Even after their children arrived—Tom in 1962, Rob in 1964 and Page in 1966—Evans continued to study and paint. “I remember those car pools,” she laughs. Driving to Upland Country Day School in Kennett Square, “it’s amazing I didn’t run off the road. Those landscapes in Chester County, there’s just so much going on. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.”
By 1969 Evans had started to show her work. Her first solo was at the Gallery at Centreville. Never one to be content with her art, she continued to seek the best teachers, such as Gene Davis of the Washington Color Field Painters, at the Corcoran School of Art in D.C. And she sought the toughest of critics, such as the notoriously difficult painter Joan Mitchell, who Evans called on during a visit to Giverny, the garden of impressionist Claude Monet. For all her toughness, Mitchell came to be an admirer.
To her drawing and painting, Evans brought many lessons from music: melody translated to flow, point-counterpoint manifest as visual contrast, major and minor keys expressed as lights and darks, theme and variation as seen in the constant repetition of subject matter, and the discipline of practice, practice, practice.
Since that first show in Centreville, Evans has been part of dozens of group shows from Virginia Beach to New York City and Russia to West Africa, plus dozens of solo shows from New York to West Palm Beach.
And now this, “Painted Poetry,” a solo art exhibit in an art museum. It bears repeating: Even the French Impressionists never had a museum show in their lifetimes.
On a raw, overcast morning, the Monday after a beautiful Easter, Evans squats under a row of pines at Goodstay in Wilmington. It would not seem to be a good day to paint en plein air, but this is how she does it—outdoors, in the open, the old-fashioned way. A wind whips the 40-foot trees, threatening to carry away the board that backs her paper, and it threatens to carry away Evans, tiny as a wood sprite.
“I was listening to this sermon in church yesterday, about renewal, and it inspired me,” she says. “I thought, I just have to get back out there.” So she packed her stool and her board and her tangerine crate full of big tubes of oil paints, then drove to Goodstay to spend the afternoon painting.
Nature is essential to her spirit, and it remains a constant fascination. “It changes all the time,” she says. “It’s so reaffirming. The way things die and come back—there you have it. That metaphor is loud and clear. It’s a religion, really.”
Across the parking lot from where she set up, weeping cherry trees burst with pink blossoms and forsythia blazes brilliant yellow. “This time of year, when things happen, they happen so quickly,” says Evans.
Also at this time of year, class is in session at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, on the grounds of Goodstay, so the parking lot, empty the day before, is packed with cars that block her view. Clouds flatten the light, yet that only seems to heighten the vibrancy of the blooms.
Goodstay is one of the many scenes she paints often—like a friend’s garden in Arden, the peony fields at H.G. Haskell Farm on Pa. 100—as her Cézanne painted Mont Saint-Victoire. She’ll often return a work, unfinished from the previous year, to the scene to recapture the beauty before it again fades for the season. Some paintings she’ll take to the studio to “work out what just isn’t working,” but most of the time, she paints in nature. “I like the reference and the inspiration you get from being on the spot.”
As she paints, she talks. The conversation flows as easily as if she were drinking coffee at the kitchen table with a friend, not absorbed in her work. “It makes me mad when people say we can’t talk about politics and religion,” she says. “Heck, it’s who we are.”
Bundled into a blue-black plaid flannel shirt, a purple scarf and black tights, Evans sits on a folding camp stool, making her marks. When she’s not painting, she’s thinking about painting. When she views a scene, she rearranges it in her head in a way that pleases. Once you know the basics, she says—how to draw, how to pull something forward in space as you push other things back, how to create depth with vertical lines and breadth with horizontal lines—it’s easy. Not that everything works all the time.
“See the way the red is coming in there? I think I’ll leave that. I like the contrast. And I like it when this underneath part comes in. I just want to get over there for a minute…”
She walks across the lot to get a better look at the scene. “There’s just so much going on.” Among the many maxims she often repeats, “Painting is about editing. It’s about leaving some things out so you can focus on what builds and sustains the mood.”
That means correcting and re-correcting, erasing, then adding new paint layer upon layer to build a deceptively complex work. As Coyle remarked of “Godot Tree #3” in “Painted Poetry,” “Depending on the light or time of day, it can look vastly different. There are so many layers under there, so many colors.”
With a paper towel, Evans wipes away some of the charcoal that defines the limbs of the cherries. She scratches in a bit more, smudges it into the pink canopy of blossoms. She will sometimes smear the paint around with her fingers. She roots through the tangle of ivy at her feet. “If I had a stick…”
The result may appear like it was made effortlessly, but it clearly was not. Which is part of the delight of seeing her show.
“For the basic looker, they find that she does color so well,” says Danielle Rice, executive director of the Delaware Art Museum. “But what I love is the energy in her art. There’s a gesturing in it that’s like Chinese calligraphy. There’s so much behind it, but there’s the minimum number of strokes needed. It’s easy to look at, but the closer you look, the more you see.”
“There’s a gutsiness to it,” says Chris Addison of Addison/Ripley. “There’s a willingness to go beyond mere representation. The physical act is as important as the subject and color. The spontaneity is also very important, and very pleasing.”
Evans herself mentions calligraphy often. It’s the word she uses to describe the ligature of trees, one of her favorite subjects. “The trees, for me, they’re figurative,” she says. “They’re like de Kooning.” She gazes toward the woods outside her studio. “I like them before they get all the leaves on them, when you can see all that nice light.”
Evans has a special connection to Willem de Kooning. When the abstract expressionist emigrated to the United States, he landed in Newport News, near her hometown of Virginia Beach. The two artists share an admiration of Cézanne. (De Kooning remarked, “He is the father of us all.”) And Evans and de Kooning share the same birthdate, though he was born 29 years before she. “When I learned that, I thought, Oh my Lord,” she says.
You can see his influence in her figure drawings and in her trees—a fact Sozanski frowned upon in his Inquirer review, “but I don’t care,” Evans says. While viewing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City last December, “All I could say was, ‘Thank you, de Kooning.’” She freely acknowledges her debt in “Merci de K. #1” and “Merci de K. #2,” from “Painted Poetry.”
Among other influences, Evans counts French painters in general, as well as John Constable and John Turner. “I come out of art history,” she says. “We all come out of something. We all come out of art history, unless you’re a primitive.”
The painters of yore may have an influence, but those who had a direct impact were teachers, like Bostelle, and the critics, like Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, of the New York School of abstract expressionism. Some of their paintings hang in her home. “I needed people who were going to be honest with me,” Evans says. “They’re critical of themselves, so they’re going to be critical with you, too. You can’t hear, ‘That’s nice,’ all the time, even if it is, because pretty soon it doesn’t mean anything.”
It has always been important to her to be good. “What choice do you have?” she says. Coyle credits Mitchell and Hartigan with nudging Evans toward abstraction, toward works that “vault her out of being a local painter.” (Hartigan shared a show with
Evans in Baltimore in the early 1980s.) Davis had an enormous philosophical influence on her development.
“Gene could really talk about art—all the arts,” Evans says. “One of his things was renunciation: learn it, then destroy it. He also said the rules of modern art weren’t to be played by, but to be played with.” Lessons she gained from Davis—“The more you care about the drawing, the more it counts when you break it apart”—are scrawled into the spaces of some work, as “Stay in the present tense of the drawing” in “Merci de K. #2.”
“Of deep interest to me is how words connect to her painting,” Addison says. “It’s not competing with, but complementing the work. It’s a sign of deep thoughtfulness.”
That thoughtfulness is just part of what prevents her work from being merely derivative, makes it wholly original.
“I like the cleverness of it,” Scott says. It’s not about the subject matter. It’s about how it’s made. I’m not always aware of the narrative process. It’s about the paint—and the touch. I want to be walked through someone’s thoughts and feelings. Mary Page does that for me.”
Last year Evans went to a show at Tibor De Nagy Gallery in New York City called “Painters and Poets.” From there, the theme of her own exhibition, two years in the making, “just evolved.” “Poets talk a lot about nature,” she says. “I’m learning more about poetry all the time.”
Words, especially poetry, are important. She carries a head full of aphorisms about art, and she speaks them often: “Nature provides, the artist decides.” “That which captures the mind must first excite the eye.” On the walls of the museum are quotes from favorite poets: “I learn by going where I need to go,” from Theodore Roethke and, from Wislawa Szymborska, “I’d have to be really quick to describe clouds—a split second’s enough for them to start becoming something else.” Just this morning, Evans found a slip of paper in the house, bearing the message, “Poetry is enriched by allowing oneself to dream while painting.” If chance comes to the trained observer, it seems serendipity may come from living your values every day—on this day there is live poetry as part of the exhibition.
About 35 guests follow Evans and Coyle through a tour of the gallery. Many of the visitors are artists, and a few administrators, from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst County, which Evans has visited for two weeks every year—except this one—since 1990. There she works long days, painting the Shenandoah hillsides and mustard fields and discussing creativity with other artists, composers and poets, some who have become good friends. Also here are
Delaware poet laureate emeritus E. Jean Lanyon, a painter as well, and current poet laureate Joann Balingit. All have come to see the work and listen to readings by two of Evans’ longtime poet friends from VCCA: Barbara Crooker and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan, a fellow Hollis alum. “As writers, Crooker tells the group, “we’re trying to catch something at the moments it’s changing.”
And things do change—by the second, by the season, over the years. Red bud trees leaf out. Blossoms fade as quickly as they bloom. Squalls blow in, then rain themselves out. Light comes and goes. The mustard fields she often painted while at VCCA have been paved over to make new highways. The Sussex County farm in one of the Bidens’ paintings has yielded to new housing.
And now, with many friends gathered in her studio after the poetry reading, VCCA director Greg Smith announces that Mt. St. Angelo in Amherst County, Evans’ Mont Saint-Victoire, the subject of paintings such as “Shenandoah Jazz #3” and the recent “Dark Side,” is under threat of development.
“It makes me sad,” Evans says, sitting in her studio a few days later, though it’s not a sadness on which she dwells. She points to another painting on the wall, a favorite farm. “This landscape here, it’s already gone. But you have to find something else.”
“Something else” includes the coast of Florida, where she and Tom have spent two months out of the past 10 winters. “Being in Florida really opened up the sea and sky for me,” Evans says, and it has sent her in new directions, which is vital to her relevance as an artist. Her extraordinary color sense is evident in works such as “Twilight” and “Ode to Constable,” but the brush work couldn’t be more different. The feathery touch of “Twilight” creates a sublimely lighted sky. The bold strokes and finger work of “Constable” show an artist as active and quick as the storm she captures. It’s the kind of painting that earns Rice’s respect for Evans’ command of her medium.
Scott finds it impossible to separate Evans from her work. One of the things he admires most about it is her optimism. “There’s joyousness in it. She has a good time painting, and she prioritizes that.” Rice puts it in slightly different terms. “I think her work gives you great hope.”
Not that Evans has ever been content with her work. New vistas, new perspectives on familiar themes, new ways of doing—these are constant pursuits. Nature will renew itself in surprising ways. There are poems left to paint. The next phase, she says, will reveal itself. “It’s more exciting when something new happens,” she says.
“Painted Poetry: The Art of Mary Page Evans” will be on view at the Delaware Art Museum through July 15.