|By Carole Deutsch
A Paul Evans Symposium at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, Pa., addressed the artist’s position within the framework of the 20th Century Modern movement. The April 12 event was held in relation to an outstanding exhibition, Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism, which is composed of 65 examples of Evans’ most iconic works. The exhibit, which was two years in the making, was organized by the museum’s curator of collections, Constance Kimmerle. It will be at the museum until June 1, at which time it will travel to Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Speakers at the symposium included Mark Sfirri, sculptor, furniture maker and professor at Bucks County Community College; Mira Nakashima, creative director, George Nakashima Studio; Gregory Wittkopp, director, Cranbrook Art Museum and the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research; Edward S. Cooke Jr., Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts in the department of the history of art at Yale University; Robert Slifkin, assistant professor, modern & contemporary art, New York University; and Helen W. Drutt English, founder/director of Helen Drutt: Philadelphia.
Sculpting with metal
Paul R. Evans II (1931-1987), one of the most dynamic artists of the 20th Century Modern movement, was encouraged by his mentor, Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008), to expand his innovative style in metal sculpting into furniture crafting. Evans began his artistic endeavors as a jeweler, which is reflected in the decorative elements of his geometrically formed designs – they’re vibrant with originality and boldly bridge the barriers that separate art as sculpture and functionality.
Evans was among the early Bucks County, Pa., craftsmen who were ushered in by Wharton Esherick (1887-1970), known as “The Dean of American Craftsmen,” followed by George Nakashima and Phil Powell, who shared his studio with Evans and often collaborated on pieces that exhibited Powell’s organic wood furniture originality and Evans’ welded metal expertise.
One of the resounding themes throughout the lectures was the comparison of Evans to his contemporaries, who preferred to work with wood and celebrated organic forms. Evans worked in metal, using a blowtorch as a chisel, and unlike his fellow craftsmen, Evans embraced new technology and state-of the-art materials. In many ways, this rendered him a black sheep in the artistic community, but the demand for his stunning studio furniture creations, along with a driving zeal for his work, catapulted him from his humble beginnings in a shed studio to an enterprise with as many as 80 employees. After sharing Phil Powell’s New Hope studio in the 1950s, Evans established his own studio in 1970 in Plumsteadville, Pa., although the two continued to work together as co-artists on select pieces.
By 1979, Evans opened an additional showroom on East 61st Street in New York City and also created a full line of furniture for Directional that included his Argente series, Sculpted Bronze series and the popular Cityscape series of furniture designs.
Argente employed a method of welded aluminum coated in black polymer paint. Because of the difficulty in producing the series, pieces for Argente are considered rare.
Cityscape was inspired by high rise urban architecture and, as such, was geometrically composed using smooth, sleek and crisp patterned designs. Evans emphasized the dazzling impact of the skyscrapers with mirrored and shiny materials.
Sculpted Bronze applied a wide range of elements that read predominantly as sculpture and secondarily as functional pieces of furniture. Evans’ relationship with Directional was the standard bearer for creative manufacturing of hand-crafted furniture, in that each piece was made and finished by hand and supervised by the artist from beginning to end, one piece at a time.
Experimental attitude ’limited’
During the lecture, Gregory Wittkopp gave an interesting account of Paul Evans’ Cranbrook experience.
In 1953, less than eight months into a scholarship program and one month before graduation, Evans withdrew from Cranbrook to open a shop at Sturbridge Village, Mass. However, his brief time at Cranbrook was a pivotal influence in the refinement of his formal education as a metalsmith.
On Evans’ Cranbrook record, his metalsmithing instructor Richard Thomas noted, “Excellent mechanically, experimental attitude seriously limited, overconfident, decidedly intolerant and selfish. I would hesitate to recommend him for a situation requiring close cooperation with others.”
While the audience broke out in full-blown laughter, Wittkopp went on to speculate that the Richard Thomas assessment was based on a clash between the departmental philosophy of traditional craftsmanship and the sensibility of an ambitious young artist.
The general impression of Evans as a dynamic, larger than life, upbeat individual, who is often seen in photos with a broad infectious smile, was confirmed by Dorsey Reading, whom Evans referred to as “his own hands.” Dorsey worked side by side with Evans for 23 years.
“People ask me how he was as a boss, and I tell them he was not so much of a boss as a colleague and friend. We were all friends who worked together and had a great time doing it. Going to work was an everyday adventure.”
The scope of Paul Evans’ artistry was boundless. He worked in mixed media of copper, bronze, steel, pewter, aluminum, slate and painted wood to create numerous versions of mosaic pattern and collage designs that characterized his individualistic flare. While high-relief, exaggerated repoussé, and a distinctive sculpted volcanic design were hallmarks of Evans’ art, he also created arrow straight, slick and streamlined patterned designs. Evans did things no one else had ever done. Dorsey Reading takes it further.
“Evans did things no one else could do or has been able to do since.”
Paul Evans’ work is among the most distinctive and sought after art forms in the 20th Century Modern arena today, commanding staggering prices internationally that continue to break their own impressive records. His work is held in the most prestigious museums and private collections. The exhibit at the James A. Michener Museum is a stellar representation of his unparalleled lifework.
In 1987, at the age of 55, Paul Evans awoke at dawn on the first morning of his retirement and suffered a fatal heart attack while watching the sun rise. In his eulogy to his dear friend, Phillip Lloyd Powell said, “Paul Evans danced on the edge of the volcano.”
Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism exhibition has been supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Additional generous support has been provided by Rago Arts and Auction Center. For more information, visit www.michenermuseum.org