Evelyn Leavens with a work-in-progress landscape in her Red Bank studio.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen July 30, 2010)
Parked on an easel in the sunlit second-floor studio on the east end of Red Bank, a painting is taking shape, almost in turn-of-the-seasons real time; brashly delineated trees sprouting like declarative statements from the thrill-ride curves of a crazy quilt countryscape.
What might have been the makings of some plein-air jigsaw puzzle in less imaginative hands is becoming, under the artist’s patient eye and brush, a ruckus of bold shapes and colors — a scene in which Nature’s delightfully messy-thorny-scratchy surprises lurk beneath those curvaceous comforts.
Just don’t ask about a title for the canvas, at least not yet. To Evelyn Leavens, the name “Work in Progress” will suit it just fine. In fact, to hear the 85-year-old painter, photographer and instructor tell it, her 60-year career is still just that — a work in progress.
With a major solo exhibit of her paintings on display now at theMonmouth Museum in Lincroft — as well as a contribution to a much-anticipated group show opening this weekend at Shrewsbury’s Guild of Creative Art — the work of the locally legendary Leavens has never been more visible and accessible. Still, the artist herself would prefer not to call it a “retrospective.” Think of it as a chance for Leavens to pause for one moment — a moment in which the rest of us can struggle to catch up — before sprinting ahead to the next challenge.
“Planted Fields with Trees II,” from 2009 by Evelyn Leavens.
“I’m still painting; I’m always working,” Leavens says in the second-floor studio of the house near the Navesink where she’s lived for more than 80 years. “I wouldn’t give it up any more than I would move out of my home.”
Home is a spacious Tudor on a quiet block — a place where antique furnishings coexist alongside Mac stations and digital photo equipment — and where the longtime owner has adapted the comfy sun room (and, on occasion, the backyard patio) into a sort of schoolhouse in which she’s taught art to adults and kids, off and on, for some four decades.
“I’m self-taught, no academic credentials, and I’ve always believed that an artist never stops learning,” says Leavens, whose dedicated “friends, fans and students” have created a Facebook page in her honor. “Whenever anyone asks me how I teach, I say that I simply tell people what I know — and I’ll always accept good and honest advice from my students.”
Things were reportedly not always so quiet there in the neighborhood where young Evelyn and her parents lived (give or take a year spent traveling around Europe on a budget) since 1929 — the artist offering stories of how she ran naked around the neighborhood at the age of nine, or how she masterminded a practical joke on passing motorists involving a life-size dummy, an empty liquor bottle, and some string.
Evelyn (who asked her parents to transfer her from Rumson Country Day School to the old Mechanic Street public school, which they did) would eventually channel those creative energies into a calling as a fine artist. “I had a big career ahead of me,” she says, beginning in earnest in 1953 and attaining her first solo show at the formidable Old Mill Gallery in Tinton Falls — placing her “in that crowd” with the likes of Alice Neel and the great choreographer Martha Graham.
The artist’s life was a choice that Leavens arrived at only after first breaking off a wedding engagement — having concluded that she “just couldn’t go through” with a life spent within the narrow parameters of a wife and mother in suburban postwar America.
“He never got over it — he had a little house picked out for us,” Leavens says of her long-ago suitor. “I broke someone’s heart — but things are as they were meant to be.”
A detour to her career path as a fine artist occurred in 1958, when a job at a veterinarian’s office brought a basset hound by the name of Boswell (after “the Boswell who did Samuel Johnson’s thingamajig”) into her life. A series of funny sketches of her new companion led to a casual book proposal with Simon & Schuster — which opted to publish her engaging studies of the hound (with equally engaging text contributed by an anonymous editor) as Boswell’s Life of Boswell, a volume that reached the number 2 spot on the New York Times list of best-selling children’s books.
“The book sold for $1.95 a copy, from which I got six cents,” says Leavens, who adds that she found herself “condemned” in certain circles for having participated in such a commercial venture. “Today on Amazon you’ll find copies going for as high as $145.”
In any event, an identity as a book illustrator was the road not taken for Leavens, who worked her way back into the fine art field — with solo and group exhibitions at major galleries, museums and corporate headquarters across the state — and who added “teacher” to her gallery of skills at the suggestion of a boyfriend.
These days, Leavens continues to welcome visitors and students, as well as to get out and about the greater Red Bank area — although she harbors some criticisms of a town that’s “gotten a lot richer” from the working-class borough of her youth; a place where “you can’t even buy a light bulb downtown” and “we’re surviving on nightlife alone.”
It’s a level of activity and social engagement that suits the self-described “extrovert,” a woman who cites the likes of Matisse and Basquiat as influences (and Raymond Mintz as a mentor) — and who claims to be inspired by everything from Hillary Swank and Hugh Laurie to her favorite movie, the always amazing Harold and Maude.
“I never saw a pigeonhole that could hold me, and I’ve never been afraid of anything,” says the artist, who continues to express an aim to “get known” outside of New Jersey. “I’ve never been old — I don’t look 85, right? I don’t. And I certainly don’t feel 85.”
“Even an MRI interests me — I kind of like the sound.”
There’s still plenty of time to catch up with this dynamic linchpin of the Shore arts community, as the one-woman show, The Painting World of Evelyn Leavens, continues in the main gallery of the Monmouth Museum (on the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College) during regular hours through September 5. The artist (who’s represented by pieces ranging from more than 30 years old to a “brown paper series” that was completed just prior to the opening) is scheduled to return to the museum on Sunday, August 9, to appear in a video on her work — an endeavor about which she promises, “I’ll put some spunk into it.”