|Handel Evans; c. 1964; ink, gouache, plaster on wood; ruined by my reflection!
I first met the painter, Handel Cromwell Evans, in Rome in the fall of 1962. I was nine years old and he was 30. I was studying art at the fledgling art school of one Bruce Copeland, where my sister DD and I would go in the evenings and do batik and papermache, the stuff kids do. In another room was a man painting a large mural, maybe 10 by 20 feet, that was an explosion of bold titanic figures and crashing geometry, like a cubist drama inspired by the Bernini fountains in the Piazza Navona. It made a huge impression on me.
Standing in the doorway and seeing Handel at work, back to me, arms outstretched as though he was conducting a tidal wave, a vision happening right in front of me, affected me irrevocably, much in the same way that the revelation of walking in on my artist mother, with clay in each fist working furiously on a giant terra-cotta head in her bedroom in our home in Shaker Heights, had done a few years earlier. I didn’t just soak it in. I wasn’t just wowed. Both experiences combined to determine the course of my life in a split second. There was no going back.
I remember my friend, the painter Leon Polk Smith, telling me about walking by an art class when he was in college and looking in the door, and then telling himself that that was what he wanted to do. Having that moment. He was a fully formed adult being reborn. I on the other hand was already the little artist when I saw my mother working. I was when I saw Handel painting the mural. I can’t remember not being the artist. But those moments showed me what being an artist meant as a grown up. As a human being. They opened a door. They showed me something about the power of art in a flash that I have lived with my whole life and never forgotten.
Soon afterwards my mother and Handel became involved and we would see a lot of him. I am quite sure that I never had the privilege of knowing anyone like him before or since. People are often outraged, for example, that he very quietly asked me one evening sitting across from me at dinner if I knew what that hamburger I was eating actually was. I am sure I probably said something clever and stupid that it was a hamburger. In complete earnestness and without a shred of malice he explained to me that it was ground up dead cow. I am fairly sure that my mouth opened in mid chew and that it stayed open and didn’t move as I contemplated this horrifying information. I am again quite sure that the food in my mouth fell back onto my plate, and that from that moment on I was a vegetarian, like him.
It was not that complicated. I had not known what I was eating. When I did have some idea what was in my mouth, well, why would I want to do that? Like seeing him painting that first time, the information travelled at light speed. For what it is worth, I am now 60 and I have always painted murals and been a vegetarian(and made sculpture). Handel was like that. He made that kind of impression. He was kind, direct, even matter of fact, but he was also passionate about what he believed and cared about. And he had not an ounce of cynicism.
When I was invited to attend a memorial for Handel in Philadelphia after his death in 1999, I was too sad, and declined. I had lost contact with him after Rome, and although I spent years trying to track him down, I had never had any luck. I was thoroughly devastated when, having found him at last, he had died in his mother’s arms six months earlier.
What Handel taught me has always stayed with me. In many ways he was my first and only teacher, even though he was really just a friend, and really just my mother’s boyfriend at that. My sister and I both liked him very much. He was one of those rare individuals who was completely present and genuine, even with children. As everyone knows, children see through everything. In a world where most people walked and talked like ghosts, Handel was solid as a rock and all substance. When you are a child, a man of substance actually means something. A man of substance is something you connect with. He was the kind of person that if you saw him from the back, you still knew what he was looking at, thinking, and talking about. He was the most intent person I can ever remember knowing.
DD and I soon stopped going to Bruce’s for art. Handel became our art world. We made papermache according to his special recipe. One of the things I never hear about in connection with Handel was that he made marionettes. This was huge to DD and me. Anything about puppets and marionettes was magic. Handel made world class marionettes, and he convinced us to be very patient with his complicated paper mache recipe because even the Queen of England owned one of his marionettes. It took time and patience and work to make this stuff that would become the heads and bodies and arms and legs of these special creatures. When the mixture finally was ready, it was a dream to work with, and we appreciated immediately why it was worth all the trouble. It was light, smooth, and incredibly responsive.
I had always carried sketchbooks with me as long as I could remember. I filled them with drawings and poems. Handel and I would draw together. He never tried to influence me. We would just draw. When it ended, when it was over, when my mother and he split up because she wasn't in love with him, when he left; he left me his paint box, my first paint box, and to get on with things, I used it to paint my first oil painting, a little thing of our siamese cat.
One of the many things Handel had shown me was how to make my own gesso, how to prepare wood panels with it, and finally polish the surface in such a way that it led right into the painting, influencing the composition. Handel encouraged me to listen to the little whispers of form that appeared in the unique irregularities in the otherwise blank but hand-crafted painting surface even before the painting began; in fact, Handel taught me that listening was the first step to making a painting.
Finding the composition in the painting surface goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond of course. But only a year or so after Handel's guidance, the Futurist Master Gino Severini also personally recommended that I look for the patterns formed by sand cast on wet plaster to inspire my mural/fresco compositions. It was Handel, however, that conveyed this to a 9 year old boy in a way that made absolute sense. He also showed me how to work the surface with sandpaper and a rasp to realize the abstract shapes that emerged.
Handel’s own work pushed this idea of working the plaster surface farther and farther over the years that followed so that he integrated this process into what the work would become, allowing the push and pull from the substance of the plaster painting surface to the working of the paint to culminate in a completely original outcome. I have never quite seen anything like it in all of my travels in the art world.
I am not sure why Handel abandoned this process, but he did. Perhaps it got him where he was trying to go. Perhaps the techniques he developed ended up getting in the way, like baggage, and their weight imposed itself on his journey, like too much tail on a kite.
The real purpose of this recollection is to tell of one particular incident that has stayed at the bottom of who I am. It is a hand on my hand at the tiller. Anyone who knows me well knows this story too well.
Handel and I were drawing each other one evening. It went very well. My mother liked the ink drawing Handel did of me drawing him so much that she insisted on having it and getting it framed. That was always my mother's biggest compliment: she had to have it. I experienced it recently. Nina Nielsen said that she liked this 1959 Resnick painting I have from my mother so much by saying that she wanted it. John Baker, her husband, said the same thing about a Picasso drawing I had just purchased at auction. He wanted it. It is the highest compliment and every artist knows it.
So Handel, who did a lot of his own framing, did what he always did, and fixed the drawing with a quick coat of shellac.
What happened next was a little miracle in my life. The shellac quite by accident caused a drawing on the reverse side of the paper to come through and ruin the drawing. It was one of mine, one of my mythical poetry figures, and it crossed perpendicular to the figure Handel had done of me. Right through the middle of my torso!
My mother was beside herself that the drawing was spoiled. She even cried, which seemed unlike her and over the top. But I guess the drawing captured something fleeting, a moment of innocence and art, a moment of quiet but heartbreaking intensity. I didn't get it. I secretly blamed myself because it was my drawing that caused all the damage and fuss. And yes, Handel's was a beautiful drawing, crisp and alive; Daumier and Lautrec would have approved.
But here is what happened next and what made all the difference. Handel began to comfort my mother, and he welcomed the opportunity because he loved her dearly. He tenderly explained to her that all was indeed not lost, that not only was the drawing not ruined, but that it was better, better because what could be better than a drawing of mine showing through his drawing of me drawing him. It was divine providence. Couldn't she see that? It was the happy accident every artist hopes for when they lay themselves at art's feet in the act of making something. It was a miracle. And she stopped crying, and smiled, and understood. And so did I.
Spring Hill, 2014