Virginia B. Evans may well be the most acclaimed but largely unknown artist in West Virginia history. But that situation is about to change.
The artist and her work are subjects of an exhibit open at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston through June 7.
“There can be little doubt that Virginia B. Evans is among the foremost figures in West Virginia art history,” said John Cuthbert, director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University Libraries. “The extensive body of her artwork that survives is worthy of enduring recognition, not only in the Mountain State but well beyond, for its inherent quality and its evidence in representing the art of its time and place.”
Virginia B. Evans, The Yellow Lampshade, oil on canvas, 35 x 31 inches, ca. 1930. Private collection
Cuthbert has authored a book about the Moundsville native. Virginia B. Evans: An All-Around Artist chronicles the life and diverse career path of an artist who made her mark as a painter, glass industry designer, and teacher during the 20th century.
A buzz has already begun, and new admirers are gathering.
Charleston art collector Diane Hackney-Oliver heard about Evans only a few years ago, and became an immediate fan. She now owns three Evans paintings. Two of those are currently on display in the Commissioner’s Gallery of the State Museum.
“I knew about Blanche Lazzell and a few other West Virginia artists, but I didn’t know about Virginia B. Evans until recently,” Hackney-Oliver said. “I was very impressed to learn about her. She is an undiscovered gem.”
While Hackney-Oliver was first drawn in by Evans’s style and her use of vibrant colors, she developed a deeper respect when she learned that Evans was a strong, independent woman who traveled on her own to Europe multiple times. One of those trips was aboard a merchant marine ship which became the subject of one of Hackney-Oliver’s paintings.
“Virginia B. Evans was definitely a woman before her time. She didn’t let anything stop her,” Hackney-Oliver said.
Evans was surely one of the best trained West Virginia artists of her era. Her studies took her from the Mount de Chantal Academy in Wheeling to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1924, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation awarded her a fellowship to study in New York. She capped off her education at the School of Art for American Students in Fontainebleau, France.
In his book, Cuthbert details Evans’s success as an impressionist landscape, still life, and portrait painter and her experiments with other realist and modern currents. Cuthbert believes she did her best work in a regional impressionist style.
Venturing into glass in the 1940s, Evans quickly became a leading designer in the Upper Ohio Valley glass industry and is best remembered for a product line she designed for the Imperial Glass Company. Inspired by Asian artistic motifs such as dragons and butterflies, she created Imperial Cathay Crystal, a mix of more than 30 items ranging from ashtrays to candle holders.
In the following years, Evans taught art, served as a mentor, promoted the importance of art education, and eventually moved to Florida. It was the Sunshine State that rejuvenated her interest in painting.
In 1974, Evans returned to West Virginia to spend her final years in the Moundsville area. She passed away on March 23, 1983, at the age of 89.
Cuthbert’s efforts at capturing Evans’s life and extensive career in his book about the artist won a stellar review from her nephew, Laurence Evans.
“John did a beautiful job with the book. He knows more about Virginia than I do,” he said.
Laurence Evans and John Cuthbert pose in front of The Devil’s Elbow which was commissioned by the West Virginia Permanent Art Collection in 1972.
As a child, the artist’s nephew often played in the sunroom, which served as the backdrop for several of her portraits. He also grew up surrounded by his aunt’s paintings, which hung throughout his parents’ house. One that sticks out most in his memory is The Guitarist, which adorned a spot over their mantel for years. His mother, Augusta Evans, donated the painting to the WVRHC in 2001.
“That was a hard one to give up,” he said.
His favorite work – one that he plans to hold to for a long time – is a portrait of his grandmother titled The Yellow Lampshade. He apparently has good taste. The painting graces the cover of the March/April 2104 issue of American Art Review, which contains a lengthy article about Virginia B. Evans by Cuthbert.
“I’ve taken that painting everywhere I’ve moved. It’s a beautiful painting,” Laurence Evans said.
The exhibit in Charleston is the second to which he has contributed. Last summer, the Oglebay Institute hosted an exhibit that coincided with the release of Virginia B. Evans: An All-Around Artist. Mr. Evans loaned several paintings from his private collection for both exhibits.
“I’m doing it because I knew Virginia fairly well. She wanted her work to be exhibited widely, not just in my house,” Evans said.
Jim and Janie Warsinskey traveled from Wheeling to see the exhibit. Longtime friends of the Evans family, they first discovered Virginia B. Evans by admiring her paintings at the Evans’s home. The couple later met the artist when she returned home to West Virginia late in life.
Janie Warsinskey said the exhibit was well worth the long drive. She especially enjoyed hearing Cuthbert’s insightful remarks about the artist in a gallery talk presented at the opening reception for the exhibit. They headed home with a signed copy of the book, a gift from Laurence Evans.
“I felt John brought Virginia to life by telling us so much about her growth through education, her determination to express herself with little compromise and, of course, her travels, both national and international,” Warsinskey said. “Now, I’m enjoying reading the book.”
The exhibit is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It will be closed on May 13 for the Primary Election and May 26 for Memorial Day.
Virginia B. Evans: An All-Around Artist is available at assorted locations across West Virginia including at Tamarack and the West Virginia Culture Center gift shop and also through the WVU Press at www.wvupressonline.com.