Jessie Benton Evans

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                (Note: The following is an excerpt from Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond, scheduled for publication in late 2011.)

 

Jessie Benton Evans was yet another pioneering Arizona woman artist who made several trips to the Painted Desert region in the early 20th Century. Born in 1866 in Ohio, she studied at Oberlin College, and then later at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was one of the very few painters to call Phoenix home in the pre-World War II era.

Like Payne, Evans was worldly and sophisticated. Married to Denver Evans, a successful Chicago businessman, she traveled extensively to Europe, studying and exhibiting at the Paris Salons of 1911 and 1912, as well as with Prof. Zanetti-Zilla for four summers. She belonged to numerous, prestigious art societies, both in Europe and the United States. However, also like Payne, she rarely ventured far from the nearest railway stations. She likely never made it to the Wetherill-Colville Guest Ranch.

In 1913, Evans moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where she built an Italian-style villa on the south side of Camelback Mountain. It soon became the cultural center for Phoenix society. There were no art galleries in Scottsdale at the time, and many of her sales were through the Jokake Inn and Paradise Inn, both built by her son, Robert. Over the next several decades she sold thirteen paintings to the Santa Fe Railway, more than any other female artist.

As “Doyenne” of the Scottsdale cultural life, Evans hosted the rich and famous from all over the world, produced elaborate dinner and costume parties, and taught art to those who expressed interest. In 1932, she translated the original tale of Romeo and Juliet, (which pre-dated Shakespeare’s version by 400 years) and illustrated her own version, calling it Julietta and Romeo.

Between 1905 and 1925, she exhibited her landscapes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her most popular paintings show an impressionistic view of the Arizona desert landscape in vivid color. Like many who moved to Arizona in the early twentieth century, Evans did so for health reasons. At first she hated the desert, but it didn’t take long to develop a strong affection for her new home. "I think the colors here more beautiful than in any place I have been…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."

In a letter to art critic Florence Seville Henderson, written circa 1914 from the Grand Canyon, she wrote “I think 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, thus the desert seems to me always alluring and illusive never allowing one to work in an imitative way, which would certainly rob of its charm. My room here at (The Grand) Canyon looks out over it and I constantly watch the cloud shadows play over the rocks leaving veils of pinks, blues, greens and all the varying shades of the spectrum colors.”

Rudy Turk, former Director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, declared 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.”

 

 
 
Jessie Benton Evans Blossoms and Sand
 
 
 
 
 
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