Artist, grandmother offer 2 takes on a life "lived in art"

Richard Nilsen
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Jessie Benton Evans has eyes the color of blue-green ice. When they look at you, they don't even seem real.

With a quiet voice and manner, she talks about her great-grandmother, Jessie Benton Evans.

"I grew up near her, walking down a desert lane to her house," says the younger Evans. "Since I was named after her, she decided early on that I would be an artist and put a canvas and paints before me when I was 3 or 4 years old."

 The paintings of both are on view at the Blue Coyote Gallery in Cave Creek.

"Her house was a child's dream," Evans recalls. "She had dozens of paintings of the desert, mountains and canyons stacked out from the wall, one against the other, which I often flipped through, dragging out ones to look at I especially liked.

"I learned from her as a child that art could be created from life, that one looked at objects and genuinely responded to them visually, that a life could be lived in art."

Except for the name, you would never confuse the two painters.

The elder Evans was a whirlwind in the desert during the early years of the city. She arrived here in 1911 and stayed for 45 years, painting, opening her home to artists and intellectuals, creating with her son several early resorts and genuinely acting as cultural doyenne to the city.

She was an extrovert in the extreme, whose motto was, "Rest is rust."

"Jessie Benton Evans was one of the central figures in the Phoenix art community of the 1920s and '30s," says Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, which has Evans' work in its collection. "She was one of the creators of the 'salon' environment for visiting artists in the Valley in those days."

"She was a character," says Fran Elliott, a Sedona art collector who has studied the elder Evans for years and loaned many of her Evans paintings to the show.

"At first blush, she was just a wealthy woman who painted as a hobby, but she came to Arizona, reinvented the Italian villa, held court and was the social grand dame of tiny Phoenix when it was small. She was trying to bring culture to Phoenix."

The younger Evans is more subdued, as if she has known all her life she could not be the kind of spark plug her great-grandmother was. She speaks quietly and slowly, and if there's a spine of self-confidence under her breath, there is a surface diffidence that can be unnerving.

That hasn't stopped her from making her own contribution to art, however. And in the art, the two could never be confusedeither. But here there is a curious inversion: The elder Evans painted in that genteel, tasteful, subdued style of European-imitative Impressionism; the younger goes hog-wild with color, size and expressionistic excess.

It's as though their art were their shadow opposites.

Art in America magazine describes the younger Evans' painting as "a riot of twisting and sinuous gorges below a sky in which the clouds flare out like a toreador's cape."

They are large paintings, made in the open with the 7- or 8-foot-wide canvases taped to the side of her van. The momentary effects of the vast landscape before her translate into broad brushstrokes of bright color.

Introvert vs. extrovert

The elder Evans was an extrovert who painted introverted paintings; the younger is just the reverse.

That is not the only contrast between the two.

Jessie Benton Steese was born in Ohio in 1866 and married wealthy fruit importer Denver Evans of Chicago.

"He was supposedly the first man to bring pineapple to Chicago," his great-granddaughter says.

The couple made their home in the Windy City, but they spent a lot of time apart. Evans studied art, traveling through Europe for months at a time. She studied with one famous artist after another. Perhaps more than study.

"She had a very indulgent husband."

She tired of Chicago's weather and looked for someplace warmer.

"She saw a picture of a palm tree. 'Where is that?,' she asked. 'Phoenix.' 'Buy me a ticket,' she said."

They bought 80 acres of land near Camelback Mountain, built an Italian villa and collected art from around the world.

"Everything in the house was beautiful. The faucets were dragon heads, the bench had gargoyles. It was a very European house."

The elder Evans' son, Robert, was an architect and joined her in Phoenix, where he built the Jokake Inn and the Paradise Inn, now demolished for the Phoenician resort.

The Big Apple

Jesse Benton Evans was 15 when her great-grandmother died in 1956.

Her path to art came through school at Arizona State University and the University of Iowa. After college, she and her husband, Don Gray - also a painter - moved to New York City, where they had several joint shows and good reviews from the New York Times and Art in America.

Painter Elaine de Kooning called Evans "one of the 10 best woman artists in America."

But Evans and Gray were out of step with New York in the 1960s.

"In New York, it was Madison Avenue, hype and careerism, all full of 'isms' at the time," she says. "It was a ship under full steam and we weren't part of the big movements."

They moved to upstate New York and a 240-acre dairy farm.

"It was like landing in paradise," she says. "We didn't know how much we missed nature till we got there."

They continued to have New York shows, but they also fell deeper and deeper into each other.

"We were two peas in a pod," Evans says and frowns. "I hate to use that phrase."

Elliott, who's also a family friend, says "Jess and Don are each others' lives."

"We're sort of self-contained," Evans acknowledges.

While living in New York, she was signing her paintings "Jessie Evans Gray," but a review of a show they had together referred to him as Don Gray and her as "Mrs. Gray," and it struck her wrong. So she began calling herself by her maiden name.

"It felt like I was getting a divorce," she says.

You can sometimes find her listed as Jessie Benton Evans Gray, too.

"But that's too long."

Arizona awakening

When the couple moved back to Arizona in the early '90s, Evans recognized that she had really always been painting the desert - the vast spaces, the sky, the effects of weather as an emotional metaphor.

"I paint my emotions," she says.

There they are, up on the walls of the gallery: huge paintings in cobalt, madder, vermilion and yellow.

"Many of the best Arizona artists were women," says Elliott, who specializes in collecting their work. "You can collect female artists for about as much as dinner for four at a good Sedona restaurant. They are so undervalued."

She points to a landscape by a man. It's priced at $1,700.

"You can take a zero off that for a woman."

But with collectors such as Elliott in the market, things are changing.

"I won't be able to do my collection in 20 years," she says. The prices are already rising.

But neither great-grandmother nor great-granddaughter has painted primarily for money.

"I feel I have something to say," the younger says.

And there is the dynasty of generations of Evans art.

"It's exciting to see two generations, one partly taught by the other," says Blue Coyote owner Gary Fillmore, "and how different their visions can be."

"It's exciting to show our work together," Evans says. "I with she were here to see it."

At the Blue Coyote Gallery in Cave Creek, Jessie Benton Evans looks at a watercolor painted in the 1920s by her great-grand-mother.