I just received word that Don Evans, a man who I very dearly love and admire, is unexpectedly, gravely ill. Don is the most important artistic influence in my life. He was my first art professor at Vanderbilt, and welcomed me into his family as a student, a son, and a kindred spirit during one of the most difficult, lonely and turbulent periods of my life. I know that you're surrounded by many caring voices right now, but I just want to tell you that I love you Don. I love you, so SO much. You saved my life. I want to get on a plane and fly down to the farm right now so I can be with you and Sheryl. The inclusiveness and buoyancy of who you are is a giddy, jumping light in your heart effortlessly changing everyone around you every day. I don't want to know a world without you.
A few years ago, I wrote an article (below) about the history of his life and work for a Nashville-based art magazine. I'd like to post it here tonight:
I was nineteen, entering a room painted black, prodded by peer pressure to sit cross-legged in a semicircle around a man seated meditatively in a chair. Hushed conversations surrounded him – gasps, giggles, interrogative whispers slowly petering into total silence. The man’s eyes were gently shut, his white beard almost glowing, made iridescent from a single spotlight beaming overhead – the only light in the room. “This must be the place.” he sighed, gazing past us. “I’m Don Evans. Who are you? Really, should you be here?”
Twenty soundless seconds elapsed. And he began again, unfolding a story about a recent campfire conversation that he’d had with a handful of close friends about the nature of creative activity. He explained various arguments and responses. He noted, with an increasingly measured intensity, how the debate lasted well into the night, and that the crescendo of everyone’s efforts seemed to culminate, as embers cooled and mosquitoes feasted, in one unanimous conclusion - that “Art is... ‘I want you to be me.’”
Sixteen years later, I find myself thinking back to that sentence – my introduction to Don, a man who directly inspired my decision to “do stuff,” as he would say – to make art, to write, to build and seek out communities of like-minded friends, inventors, and instigators. His definition of art was a dare. 1991 was a different time, and to a shy sophomore nerd, “be me” was a call-to-arms echoed in the weary invitations of a burgeoning counterculture. “Our little tribe has always been, and always will until the end,” wafted from my dorm radio, into Vandy Lambda meetings, into preppy minds covered in khaki. For me, this darkened classroom littered with video cables, pedestals, mannequins, televisions and posterboard soon became a real Nirvana. And some amongst this quiet group of gawkers eventually spoke up, and invented, and became my first true friends outside of my hometown.
For many, Evans’s thirty-two year tenure in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Fine Arts remains a touchstone. It continues to influence at least three generations of student-artists and colleagues, many of whom still cite the galvanizing experience of his mentorship as a formative moment in their lives and careers.
“He was the most progressive educator I ever met,” admits Vanderbilt sculpture professor Michael Aurbach. “Don’s classes in painting, drawing, and multimedia relentlessly demanded that students stretch, improvise, and rely upon themselves. I really believe that his main educational strategy was to give students an opportunity to give themselves permission to do something. He also believed that making art was research in the purest sense, because one had to come up with the ideas and the methodologies independently. One of the things that he passively reinforced in my own teaching was that there are no cut-and-dried formulas for making art.”
Evans accepted Vanderbilt’s invitation to teach in 1969. It was a transitional year when conceptual strategies and performance were enjoying high visibility in the contemporary art world thanks to the antiauthoritarian influence of artistic movements such as Dada, Pop and Fluxus. “My interest in time and spatial composition, especially as a group effort with specialists in all creative fields, began with a collaboration that I did with electronic composer Roger Hannay in 1967,” recalls Evans. “I was completing graduate school in Chapel Hill (at the University of North Carolina), and ‘Multimedia’ as it is known now was not recognized as a genre, especially within academia!”
An affordable glut of war surplus film equipment and three years of service in the army prior to college provided Evans with the access and inspiration to stage Live And In Color – his and Hannay’s “concerto of movie projectors.” It consisted of four white screens arranged end to end, four film projectors positioned to create a twenty-foot-long composite image, and an audience. “UNC’s media center had an incredible archive of old, unused stock footage,” says Evans. “I was allowed to cut, splice and assemble it to my heart’s content. Roger provided a soundtrack which proved to be the perfect compliment. And, we shared authorship of the piece with four randomly selected audience members whom I would instruct, beforehand, to start and stop the projectors in rough synch with Roger’s music. In terms of utility, I suppose it seemed a natural extension of the training films that I’d watched in the army. To make something in this way – collaboratively and in service of people – seemed practical, instructional and less precious than anything that I’d produced in private. It certainly wasn’t easel painting. It felt like painting, but with time. Each time that we staged it, the results were different.”
In the early 70's, Evans became increasingly recognized for his cooperative “happenings.” For Vanderbilt’s Rites of Spring festival in 1970, he enlisted the help of students to construct an inflatable polyethylene dome on Alumni Lawn. An improvised construction method was used that involved ironing together small geometric shapes to produce a large undulating abstraction, which soon became the talk of the campus and prompted coverage in several Nashville newspapers. During this time, Evans was also introduced to Gilbert Trythall, an experimental composer who taught at neighboring Peabody College’s electronic music program using nascent Moog technology.
“We became instant friends,” says Trythall. “At the time, Don was mesmerized by the potential of monophonic synthesizers. So, for our first collaboration, Programmatic Sensorium (1971), I composed a twenty-minute score with a Moog IIIc which was broadcast through loudspeakers that Don had placed at four corners of a silk inflatable parachute dome. We inflated it in view of a large audience, and provided remote controls which operated several slide projectors which beamed images onto the fabric.”
Two years later, the audience was asked to enter a similar inflatable to experience One Full Rotation Of The Earth – a 55-minute slow-motion opus that added a troupe of dancers from Fisk University and four film projectors to Sensorium’s media arsenal. Trythall produced a minimalist soundtrack characterized by one extended undulating note of “C,” in response to Evans’s initial desire to create an experience lasting twenty-four hours.
“Gil objected to the length, but succeeded in slowing down time anyway,” recalls Evans. “The dancers moved at half-speed, slipping in and out of the projected light. Montages of imagery surrounded the viewer, which combined with Gil’s gorgeous mantra, produced an immersive, womb-like effect. We were also awarded a grant for the piece which allowed us to tour the southeast. And, our list of collaborators expanded ten-fold.”
Evans’s creative partners became known as the Little Marrowbone Repair Corporation - a name gleaned from an experience that Evans had at a wholesale electronics store that refused to sell to individuals without a business account. He invented the name on the spot, using the street name in his home address.
“Four words,” laughs Trythall, recounting the story. “By... any... means... necessary. The people who gravitate to Don are workers, invariably of an inventive turn of mind – an incredibly diverse group of people who see fun in both the process and end result of making things happen.”
In the 80's and 90's, Little Marrowbone’s conscription reached its broadest point, enabling Evans to stage some of the most complex projects of his career. In venues as prestigious as Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art and locales as distant as Hong Kong, he continued to question revered notions of authorship by recruiting local collaborators and surrendering portions of control. The results were wildly unpredictable, and curators were often unnerved.
“At the Corcoran, I was afraid that one front row audience member was going to have to be taken out on a stretcher,” exclaims Evans. “He had a violent coughing fit in the middle of Terminal Opera (1986), which was this very somber scripted piece, and stumbled out! We’d filled the space with smoke, but learned later that he may have been asthmatic. The director was so irate, and called me the next day, asking what I’d put in the smoke – ‘If that smoke is oil-based and gets into our ventilation system, do you know what it will do to our collection?’ Luckily, we used a detergent-based smoke. But, that was one scary situation. We were always unintentionally distressing someone.”
Work on Terminal Opera began in 1981, and centered on a libretto written by Evans’s wife and longtime artistic partner Sheryl. Trythall provided a score that was fleshed out by the inclusion of a classically trained soprano and baritone.
It was also around this time that Little Marrowbone attracted a crowd nearly three-thousand strong onto the lawn of Nashville’s Parthenon to witness Luxikon 2, “the most beautiful piece that we ever did,” according to Evans. Prior to the event, local artist Buffy Holton photographed the sculptures on the building’s pediment so that they could be viewed head-on. She later hand-tinted the images and projected them onto the steps and pillars facing West End Avenue. For fifteen minutes, twenty-one volunteers stood very still in front of Holton’s projection, dressed in togas and sheets, posing in positions identical to the gods.
“It was a true tableau vivant,” says Evans, smiling broadly. “Kathie Denobriga of independent regional theatre group ‘Alternate R.O.O.T.S.’ directed all of the participants. For the finale, my friends Wendell Davis and Jack Duncan put dozens of pinwheels over a wooden lattice, attached it to a vehicle called The Buffoonmobile and drove it past the tableau during the crescendo of Gilbert’s score. Smoke bombs were thrown in front of them, and the drive-by created whirlwind rainbows in the smoke and an unreal 3D effect with the projections. Large mortar fireworks also shot up from behind the building and filled the sky as Billy Preston, another friend of ours who played Zeus, broke his pose and raised his hands heavenward. The moon was full that night. Everything just seemed to say ‘YES!’”
“Once, I told Don that I’d always wanted to ride a rocket into outer space, look back and see the Earth floating in the darkness,” grins John Hadley, Evans’s friend of thirty-six years. “A few days later he called and said that I’d better get my suit and helmet ready because the rocket that would blast me into space was already being built!”
“Did you know that he was a Unibomber suspect,” adds New York sculptor Doug Schatz, who cites Evans as an important mentor. “That is a good story. I got my state explosives license because of Don.”
Hadley and Schatz were instrumental in many of Evans’s millennial pyrotechnic projects that took place on his farm in Joelton, Tennessee and at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Thousands witnessed these events, which seemed to build on the successes of Luxikon 2 and other smaller-scale pieces staged in the interim. Burial In Space (1999), Bone (2000), and Burning Banjos I and II (2000-2001) featured thirty-foot-high wire-and-cloth effigies of guitarists, fireproof suits, flame-shooting hats, ramps, film crews, and bands playing live underneath vibrantly colored hand-painted prosceniums. Unsurprisingly, at the time of his retirement from teaching in 2001, Evans seemed more of an evangelical Pied Piper to many in Nashville’s art circles than a professor.
“Especially now, what sets Don apart is the life-confirming element of his art.” says Hadley. “People from all walks of life sense that, gravitate to that, lend their skills, bodies, hearts, souls, and time to that aspect of his personality, often on a grand scale, just because it's fun, exciting and beautiful! Don and Sheryl celebrate life like no two people I have ever known. If you are lucky enough to receive their invitation to ‘do something’ out on the farm, by all means go! You won’t be sorry. It just may change your life.”