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Alumnus Focus: Snow, Isolation and Art in the Foothills

John Borden Evans '79
Artist John Borden Evans '79 said, “You just have to paint a lot of bad things and be there when the good things come.”

Sunday, Mar. 1 at 2 p.m., the Virginia Historical Society will host the Richmond International Film Festival screening of "WHITE: A Season in the Life of John Borden Evans" by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. The film will be followed by a conversation with the director and the artist.

On a typical fall, spring or summer day between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. you can find John Borden Evans '79 painting outside of his North Garden, Va., farmhouse. But filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley found winter in the Blue Ridge Mountains far more compelling.

Montes-Bradley said of his documentary "White" [Vimeo, released in January 2014], "The initial concept was to expose his work from the perspective of four seasons, and we started production last autumn. However, the following winter I knew that the film was going to be all about cold, snow, isolation and life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains."

Because Evans only paints what's actually present outside, the winter snowfalls sometimes force him to pause and return to paintings when the conditions are similar. "Sometimes I'll start a winter painting and have to wait a whole year to finish it if the view changes," he said.

Evans learned the importance of discipline from Professor of Art Emeritus Herb Jackson.

"I figured out about 25 years ago that if I put in the time, I'll end up having results," he said. "I heard that Matisse painted three hours every single day for his whole life, and my goal is just five hours a day Monday through Friday."

Evans formulates the ideas for his paintings spontaneously. He often paints words that he then buries under additional layers of paint. "It's like a hidden message-something left over from my days as an abstract painter," he said.

It wasn't until the 1990s that Evans began to draw inspiration for his paintings from the landscape around his home. One of only two art majors in his class at Davidson, Evans began his career as an abstract painter, and then moved to painting imaginary landscapes.

"What really impressed me was how all of the professors were not only instructors, but also serious working artists," he said.

During Evans's time in college, the three studio art courses offered were painting, printmaking and drawing-he created an independent study of sculpture through a welding course at a local community college. He also traveled to France through the college's art-focused study abroad program, led by Professor of Art History Larry Ligo.

Evans standing with his grandchild.
When Evans finishes painting around 2 p.m. each day, he works on projects around the house or visits with his grandchildren.

I decided to pursue being an artist when I graduated and started painting and just haven't stopped," said Evans.

After graduating from Davidson he moved to Montreat, N.C., where he met and married Beth Neville Lancaster. They moved to her grandfather's farmhouse in Virginia, where they continue to live today.
"It's nice to have somebody be the first witness to everything you make. She's my initial audience and tells me what she thinks," Evans said. Neville, an award-winning piano major in college, directs the choir at their church and fills their home with music. Music is a big part of Evans's life, too. He often starts his paintings by painting words from songs on the blank canvasses.

The only time Evans begins a painting knowing what he's going to paint, is when he gets commissioned. "I like that a commission gives me boundaries I can work with, which is challenging but fun," he said. Otherwise, he simply paints what seems pleasing to him. "It's tough to make a living as an artist. I've had good years and bad years, but have been very lucky to have enough sales to make a living as an artist. I know not many people are able to do that."