By Jenny Neyman
It might seem like abstract art would be “easier” than representational art. After all, there’s no subject matter to render recognizably, no imagery to which to stay true, no colors to replicate, no textures to duplicate, no bells of familiarity to ring.
In that sense, less expectation and less constraint should mean less difficulty. But that is emphatically not the case. All the same technical rules of successful art apply, such as line, composition, balance and tone. But the supposed limitation of representational art — forging agreement that what the artist makes looks like something viewers recognize — is actually a framework, of sorts. It’s a bridge between viewer and artist. It’s scaffolding helping to impart focus, structure and direction to otherwise completely boundless creativity.
It might also seem that a successful artist is one who keeps viewers and potential purchasers in mind, with the belief that a certain level of commercialism is necessary to support one’s art production. Creativity is free, after all, but paint and paper are not.
Given those two suppositions, it might further seem like Jim Evenson’s stone lithography art show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this summer should have been a flop. That an artist creating strictly for himself, as Evenson does, without consideration of salability and with an increasingly strong abstract bent, to boot, wouldn’t be successful. Wouldn’t build a sustained and distinguished artistic career, wouldn’t garner much of a following, wouldn’t sell any work, wouldn’t be acknowledged as one of the most respected artists in the state.
In Evenson’s case, those suppositions would be as wrong as his work is engaging, respected and successful, even if he never meant for that to be the case. When he got his master of fine arts degree in the 1950s, his instructor at the time told him he had the skill and training to be a professional artist, but if he wanted to do art as a profession, then that was commercial art.
“You could either paint for yourself or paint for other people to enjoy and be a commercial artist, doing things that you think will be sure to sell to other people. I don’t do that. I’m a professional artist, but I’m not a commercial artist. I only paint for myself,” he said.
Evenson, now 87, chose to create what he wanted, the way he wanted, and make his living in other venues — being a teacher for 25 years and a commercial fisherman in Cook Inlet for 43 years. Originally trained in drawing and painting, his individualistic curiosity and sense of exploration led him to take a sabbatical in Spain to study the exacting, not-widely used, labor-intensive method of stone lithography, invented in the late 1700s. In it, an artist creates an image on a litho stone with a greasy paint or crayon, and the stone is moistened with water. Oil-based ink is rolled onto the stone and the greasy parts of the stone pick up the ink, while the nonpainted wet areas don’t. Paper is then pressed onto the stone to pick up the image.
“There’s a lot of technology and a lot of chemistry involved. You’re never really sure how one’s going to turn out,” Evenson said. “A painting you can do in one day, a lithograph can take a week or a month.”
Evenson brought his experience and inspiration back to Kenai and installed his own stone lithography press. To this day he and wife of 60 years, Nedra, do all the work themselves.
Evenson is the artist, interpreting inspiration onto the stone and channeling it into limited-run editions, each with only about 20 prints.
“And that’s all in the world that there are,” Evenson said.
Nedra serves as registrar — the highly important job of making sure the paper lines up exactly with the stone in pressing the prints, and does all the matting, framing and record-keeping.
“It’s a big job and if you don’t do it right it can spoil the whole effect. These are all well framed, nothing fancy on the frame but it fits the images perfectly. She has a good eye for that,” Evenson said. “I did it myself a little bit but she didn’t like the way I was doing it.”
“Oh, it was terrible. With an Exacto knife and a ruler that’s slipping,” Nedra confirmed. “I’ve been doing it about 40 years, when we moved back to the homestead (on Bishop Creek in Nikiski) and made the big studio. Jim was producing more so I started framing then. He was teaching before, so he wasn’t doing full-time artwork until then.”
The ripened fruits of that collaboration were on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center all summer, a collection of 51 of Evenson’s best stone lithography prints over the years.
Not best in the usual sense of most popular, although several have sibling prints hanging in personal art collections and in the Alaska Art Bank. But best as in Evenson’s preference.
“I like them all. I’m not being conceited, but I did them. If it wasn’t something that was good I wouldn’t have it in the show,” he said.
Overall the show offered a sense of his progression as an artist over the decades, though not in a development of skill, as he already had an experienced, artistic eye, mind and hand when he started lithography. Rather, in his changing perspective.
Evenson likes to create four types of imagery — religious, as he is a devout Christian, commercial fishing, semiabstract landscapes and full abstracts. What he does not like to do is repeat himself. As prolific as he’s been in his career, that makes realistic imagery a limited commodity.
“I think in at least the last decade I’m doing many more abstract things than I used to, because, in an abstract print, you’re not copying anything from nature. I don’t like to repeat myself,” he said.
Fishing was the first well from which he drew inspiration, as the sea and everything about it fascinated him.
“His work was more realistic when he first started working, and it was mostly seascapes. That was such a fascinating thing for us because, coming from the Midwest, we didn’t know anything about that. We thought salmon came in a can,” Nedra said.
Evenson spent his summers salmon fishing on a drift boat in Cook Inlet, and his winters translating those experiences into artwork.
“Warming Up” shows his characteristic style of blending some representational imagery and some abstract. Three boats are tethered together to a mooring buoy, with fishermen in silhouette getting ready for the day — preparing a buoy, having a cup of coffee, a cigarette and some conversation. The smoke from the boats’ exhaust and the water below are swirling, curling dances of abstract lines nestling the vessels in a sort of calm, blue-hued cocoon.
“There are abstract elements but they make a pretty realistic scene. I’ve seen so many boats tied up together, the guys getting ready to go fishing, it’s just something I’ve seen so much it’s just part of me,” he said. “If a commercial fisherman walked in here and said, ‘Oh, I really like that.’ I know I’ve struck home with him.’”
It’s about representing a feeling, as much if not more so than any specific image.
“Usually I get a general idea, or photographs will give me an idea. Sometimes I look at a landscape and I like to do really quick sketches, and then I start working on it and sometimes it’ll turn out pretty realistic, other times it’ll stay pretty abstract, but it kind of leads me along,” he said.
Many of his landscapes are mostly if not completely abstract. “Salmon Cove” is one of the more representational, creating a view of a favorite spot of Bishop Lake on their homestead in Nikiski. A few red salmon swirl in the greenish water, with a lush riot of foliage above.
“I never took a picture of it, just did some sketches. That’s about as physically realistic as anything I do,” he said.
More typical of his landscapes is “Nikiski Winter,” and a dance of nubilous colors silhouetted behind energetic, bold-lined vertical figures. It’s a view of the oil platforms in the inlet, their shapes looming in blacks and blues, their lights and smoke smoldering in yellows, reds and oranges.
It doesn’t look like the industrial installations, per se, yet the image evokes a sense of them. That, to Evenson, is a successful print.
“If I have something in mind when I start, it’s how closely it came to doing that, and I don’t necessarily mean how it looks, but the feeling of it — if it has the feeling that I wanted when I started. It can be in the color, it can just be the drawing, or it can relate to an experience I’ve had,” he said.
His abstracts, then, are a representation of how Evenson both sees and experiences his subject matter.
“Some days it’s just how I feel when I get up in the morning. I just wanted to do some lines and shading and it makes an interesting abstract. Sometimes I give it a title afterwards if I see something in it,” he said.
“Allegretto,” for instance, was named after the image was created. It’s a vibrant swirl of color and line, which evoked the feel of a fast-paced piece of music.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen when I started it. Allegretto is classical music that is fast and strong, and that’s what it reminded me of,” said Evenson, who plays the banjo. “One of the most common questions I have from people who don’t understand abstract art is, ‘How can you possibly consider yourself an artist if you don’t have anything we could recognize in your pictures?’ I say, ‘Well, have you ever heard music that didn’t have words? Some of the greatest music in the world doesn’t have any words. And abstract painting is about the same as an abstract symphony.’”
And just as in music, a symphony without lyrics can find popularity just as a painting or lithographic print without a recognizable subject.
“Whether I intend it or not I do sell some prints,” Evenson said. “I do like to sell things, even though I don’t intend for that, because I pay for the light bill and the studio and my materials.”
The popularity of his work has been a happy surprise, as it has helped him continue to do what he likes — creating to suit his own tastes, experiences and inspirations, not anyone else’s.
“I’m still working. I don’t plan to quit,” he said. “I was a teacher for 25 years, a commercial fisherman for 43 years, and I’ve been an artist all my life. I don’t know what else I would do.”