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Remembering Don Evans, artist, professor and creative catalyst, for whom the big bang was not a theory

This World, Then the Fireworks


Don Evans, who died May 6 at age 74 after a struggle with cancer, lived by perhaps the simplest and most profound of artistic creeds: "You either do stuff or you don't!" A longtime Vanderbilt professor and art-scene instigator, Evans was one of the city's artistic heroes and catalysts. His influence liberated students and peers from the stuffiness and hierarchy that creeps into the academy. His ideas reeked of gunpowder and live current. Whether in his classroom or at the home studio he dubbed the Little Marrowbone Repair Corporation, he championed active participation over inert reception, spontaneous creation over ponderous appraisal, eruptive energy and uproar over abashed decorum.

"In a town of Nashville's size, calling someone a seminal figure may be a bit grandiose," David C. Maddox wrote in the Scene four years ago, on the occasion of an exhibit of Evans' AA-derived doodles at Tinney Contemporary. "But the phrase fits Don Evans. A retired Vanderbilt professor, Evans championed a wide-open experimental approach to art that seems incongruous in a conservative institution and town. He had a big impact on students and friends, and stories of Evans-instigated 'happenings' and performances constitute part of the city's alternate history."

In that spirit — and in hopes of preserving some of that secret history — the Scene asked Evans' friends and colleagues to share their memories of the late artist and professor. Read this, then ... hell, do stuff!

Joseph Whitt, artist

My favorite memories of Don are from the early '90s when I was a student in his classes in the Cohen Building on Vandy's Peabody campus. This was when Cohen's entrances wafted sawdust, turpentine and darkroom developer, and WRVU blasted out of tinny radios inside the studios. During class, Don would often approach me slowly, stare at my overwrought artwork for a few seconds, then either shake his head or burst into laughter. Then he'd walk away. Of course, this would send me into a navel-gazing, sulking fit, no matter how many sorority girls claimed they loved my work.

Once Don let me occupy an entire room by myself for weeks, to work on a painting while the rest of the class painted a nude model in the classroom. I never explained that I secretly harbored a crush on the model and feared that staring too long at his pert splayed body would turn me gay. Don helped me dodge a bullet there. I also remember when two lesbian students built a 4-foot slippery papier-mâché penis in Don's multimedia class and later performed a "phallus worship" ritual. Actually, now that I think about it ... that's probably what made me gay.

Another time, I did a project that required me to recite some text into a microphone. I cringed upon hearing my thick Southern accent in playback. When I re-recorded it and tried to articulate my words in a more sterile way, Don admonished me, saying, "I don't like it. And I don't know why you're speaking like that. Your accent is really beautiful."

During my senior year, I spent spring break sleeping inside Cohen because the dorms were closed and I couldn't go back home to my parents' house. I'd hide from the campus police who'd patrol the buildings each night, and asked the janitor not to snitch on me. Don walked in very early one morning and found me sound asleep on a toweled pedestal that he'd made to support a life drawing model. He gasped and initially thought I was dead.

But I wasn't. And neither is he. He never will be.

Mark Hosford, artist, professor

I first arrived at Vanderbilt in 2001. My very first memory of Don was him taking me to lunch when I was on campus doing a campus interview. He showed up in jeans and a T-shirt full of holes. He took me to an Indian buffet lunch at Sitar. During that lunch, we chatted about record players, 78s, fireworks, old-time music, animation and everything in between. As it turned out, we had a million things in common as well as the same sense of humor.

We laughed and told stories straight though the lunch. I knew I had found a kindred spirit. When we went back to the art building, I showed him some of my drawings, as he had yet to see what kind of work I did. After looking at my little drawings I was producing at the time, he laughed and said, "These drawings are WAY too dark for people here. Do they even realize what these are all about?"

He then proceeded to tell me that most likely, because of how edgy my drawings might be construed, Vanderbilt would never hire me. But that was beside the point, because he also said that even though they will most likely not hire me, we had a lot in common, and I should come back in the summer and spend time on the farm with him, listening to music and helping out with his next Little Marrowbone Repair Corp. event, Burning Banjos II, and that we would have a grand old time.

I did just that, but luckily I was actually hired at Vanderbilt as well, despite Don thinking it would never happen. Once I arrived at his place that summer, I was struck with how open and welcoming Don, [his wife] Sheryl, and all the other people that came together during those events were. It was the closest thing I had ever been to living in an artist utopia. People just came together, laughed, worked, and did stuff. There was a master plan organized and orchestrated by Don with the aid of a few core minions, and a whole lot of people improvising and doing their thing. Anyone who showed up could work, play, sing or do whatever.

There was a stage set up where musicians would play and poets would speak. Karate lessons happened. Some people set up easels and painted. All kinds of things happened. Doug Shotz had brought three enormous figurative wire-frame armatures that he welded, that seemed to be about 40 feet tall. While on the ground, they were loaded with holiday lights and pyrotechnics. They were then covered with cloth, cinched together using hog nose rings. They were pivoted up straight and locked into place.

When night fell, a beautiful crescendo of performances took place. Music kicked off the mood while dancers with fireworks shooting from their heads paraded around the sculptures. Once it was time, all three figures were lit up, sparking pops and explosions and a barrage of Saturn missiles that seemed to be aimed directly at the seated onlookers. It was an exciting, beautiful and wild time. It was a place where nature, art, music, playful civil disobedience, and theater all came together to have a nice cup of tea.

I enjoyed the sense of control and chaos locked together within Don's work. The fact that he created a scripted master plan, but by having so many people help take control, there was always a subtle loss of control. That sense of unpredictability made the performances exciting. You can load up fireworks, but you can't always predict when and where they will go.

Don believed strongly that if interesting and creative people got together, something unique and worthwhile would always come out of it. It was sometimes hard to categorize what he did. Was it art? Was it his art? One of his golden rules that I try to hold dear, is the fact that it is often a waste of time to even consider that question. If you overanalyze your work, making sure it is officially thought of as "art," you will limit yourself. This is something Don would often say to me: "I went through art and came out the other side." That pretty sums up his philosophy.

In regards to his fireworks performances, he often told me that it was the only way he could compete with the awe-inspiring power of nature ... though he would have said it more eloquently. Mainly, the events at his house felt like family events. The greater family of artists. I have met so many amazing people that I am friends with through Don's happenings. They were a joyful celebration of creativity.

Don had a love for things that showed the scars of real life. Old radios, film reels, 78s, a slew of injured lamps, one-of-a-kind chairs that were missing legs and repaired with brute simplicity, and strange bric-a-brac that defied all logic. He was a fan of dumpster diving and castaway freebies. Instead of seeing things as "less than perfect," they would be seen as "uniquely altered one-of-a kind objects."

When I began teaching with Don in 2001, his studio in the Cohen Building at Vanderbilt became our hangout spot. His space was mindblowingly wonderful. It was clearly the den of a visionary. It was full to the brim with history, Jurassic technology, and crumbling plaster walls that were impossible to reach by foot. The natural decay of the architecture became a living art piece alongside his other works. He had a tiny desk right in the middle of the room with a plethora of small lamps that were elaborately wired together on a single surge protector. One switch was all that was needed to operate the mood lighting extravaganza.

We would teach classes starting at 9:10 in the morning. Don and I would both get to the studio shortly after 7:00 a.m. We would spend every morning in his studio listening to music, laughing, drawing or talking about our teaching philosophies and the day's work at hand. His office was one of the most fascinating places on earth.

I learned a lot about teaching from Don. He often saw teaching as art — specifically, performance art. On the first day of class, he would often set up a scenario which would make the students experience something completely new and different. He might sit in the corner of the room motionless and silent, until a student finally broke down and asked him awkwardly if he was ever going to talk. It was not uncommon for him to have students show up to the first day of class, instructed by a note in the middle of the room, to turn on a prerecorded message that would be played on video or reel-to-reel tape. Admittedly, some students were frightened away on the first day, but the core that remained were all students who were willing to experience new things and were ready to embrace a creative experience like no other.

He was not afraid to experiment with his teaching. One semester he decided to give them all A grades on the first day of class. "Now that you don't have to worry about your grade for the entire semester, do something interesting!" he announced. In the rooms that Don taught in, no two chairs matched. It was like the Island of Misfit Toys. He taught people to question monotony and blandness, and embrace the unique. I remember one semester, Don decided he had too much control over how his own classes were run. He believed strongly that the students should control their own destiny. On the first day of class, he put out a huge sheet of paper that had every single class date written on it. He told the students, "Write down everything the class will be doing this semester and when."

The students took it to heart and all huddled, spending the entire class period creating their dream syllabus and schedule. They filled in the days with events such as "visiting artist photographer," "critique day," "demo on darkroom photography," "video art demo," and "Digital Manipulation demo." Don took the syllabus to heart, even getting stressed because he was so determined to make sure he was doing it right and giving the class the exact experience they were asking for. He arranged for visiting artists on appropriate days, and if there was a demo scheduled that was beyond his knowledge, he would arrange for someone to guest-teach who knew the process. It was a joy to see what happens when the students became active participants in their educational experience.

Don was an avid and professional doodler. He was never without a fine-point Sharpie in hand. He preferred to draw on found paper, scavenged Vanderbilt letterhead, or faculty meeting handouts. He drew in order to visually document what he was hearing. He had a loose illustrative style that was akin to Saul Steinberg. Towards the end of his career, he came to the realization that his doodles spoke volumes about him as an artist. He was able to monumentalize these doodles in a show at Ruby Green titled, Be one of these.

After Don retired, he fixed up his barn, and it became his studio, very similar to how his studio in the Cohen was. Lamps hung upside down from the ceiling, and years and years worth of creative output could be excavated away, revealing a smorgasbord of films, videos, drawings, photos, paintings, documentation, ideas, performance ephemera, etc. He was a prolific artist to say the least.

He had a workspace in the barn, guarded by a stuffed owl, where he would make drivers, rockets, smoke bombs, and firecrackers from scratch, carefully pounding charcoal and gunpowder into cardboard tubes, utilizing tools that ranged from 19th century to the modern era. There was always brightly colored tape wrapped around the finished pyrotechnics, a secret color language known only to Don as to indicate their function and purpose.

Don's main quote in life was, "Do something." Mind you, this was before Nike had their slogan. It boiled down to the simplicity of, "You either do something, or you don't." Don had a philosophy that encouraged people to become active transmitters rather than receivers. Don't overthink it. Make something first, analyze it second.

I will always remember Don as an artist whose imagination was limitless. His charisma, addictive humor and abundant enthusiasm made him a magnet for creative individuals, many of whom worked alongside him as he orchestrated spectacular and unforgettable productions.

Andee Rudloff, artist, curator, educator

I included Don Evans in an exhibition at Tinney Contemporary titled My Magic Cape. Each artist inspired and reminded me that life is about taking risks and having complete conviction to "heart." It was a beautiful exhibition and reminded each and everyone one of us how important it is to be you 110 percent of the time. [The show came] complete with T-shirts with Don's design screened LIVE by Andy Vastagh at Boss Construction — you are one lucky person if you got one!

I openly admit I was impatient before meeting Don Evans but more impatient once I knew him to (as he put it) do something! I feel so fortunate to have known him, and even more fortunate to call him my friend. I know I will live bigger, take more risks and always make a commitment to collaboration because of Don Evans!!!

Rest in peace, dear friend ... all my future fireworks hats are for you!!!

Kristina Arnold, artist, educator, gallery director

On Monday, I lost one of my most important mentors and a very dear friend. It is impossible to think of Don Evans gone, mostly because I truly don't believe he can be gone. Too much of his spirit lives on in so many of us — those of us privileged enough to have been caught up in his and Sheryl's Little Marrowbone extended family. Their valley was and is a home away from home, and an oasis for so many creatives of all types.

I remember when I first met Don and Sheryl. A friend, Jim Snell, took me out one weekend in the mid '90s to meet them and hang out at the farm. "Don't we need to call them, and let them know we are coming?" I asked. "Don't we need to make sure they are there? Don't we need to see if they want guests?" Jim assured me that it was fine, more than fine, encouraged, for folks to just stop on by. They were always there and loved guests, he said. And so it was — for decades, and generations of students, friends, neighbors, family, who came through that always-open door, and congregated.

In Don's world, "Art" isn't just for museums and galleries. He delighted in creating Art (often taking the shape of performances) in all parts of life. One Thanksgiving I spent with them, dinner was a "FrankenPig." Being somewhat squeamish, I didn't participate in all the preparations, which included "surgeons" sewing a pig snout and ears (which apparently you can buy at the meat shop) onto a turkey, and then having said surgeons — dressed in lab coats with doctor paraphernalia, of course — dissect the turkey onto plates.

Two of Don's greatest gifts to me (and many, many others) were his ability to encourage an individual's trust in developing and doing their own creative ideas/projects and his ability to foster a community of creative folk working together to create large collaborative projects, and to simply inspire and appreciate each other. Probably the largest gift given to the Nashville arts community by Don and Sheryl has been their generosity in opening their home and allowing the physical space for this to all happen. By opening the doors to their home, an arts community grew in their backyard. And in the creek. And in the barn. And in the woods. And in the larger community.

As an artist and an art professor now myself, I can trace parts of both these sides of my life back to inspirations from Don. Throughout the week I've been jotting down the things Don helped me to learn; the things as a teacher and an artist I now also try to pass on others:

Lessons from Don Evans

1) Being an Artist (whether you capitalize the "A/a" or not) is a Real Thing and Real People do it.

2) Provide a safe space for creativity and community and it will happen.

3) Get off your butt, Make Stuff and Do Stuff.

4) Share what you know, joyfully — and aggressively if necessary!

5) It should be fun. It should also be hard work.

6) Delight in your accomplishments. Delight in the accomplishments of others.

7) Be open — to new ideas and new people and other ways of doing things.

8) Don't apologize for the things in which you believe.

9) Be a sincere and critical evaluator.

10) Get into some shenanigans.

11) Don't be afraid.


Jim Snell, executive director, Volunteer Tennessee

Unlike many of the probably hundreds of Vanderbilt students that became acolytes of Don Evans over the years, I never took an art class from Don. That didn't stop Don from commenting on my art work in classes I took from other professors, because Don didn't make a distinction between "his" students and other professors' students, or even people who weren't students at all: He encouraged everyone to be creative, to investigate, to question and to "do stuff." He did this in a variety of ways, but one of his favorite techniques was to invent a story and snare other people into whatever project he had concocted.

At one point in the mid '90s when I was out at the Evans' farm, Don declared that he wanted a secret room built in the loft of his barn that would be for the menfolk to gather to smoke cigars and drink brandy. Of course, everyone knew about the "secret" room, because he made the pronouncement in front of several people and talked about it every time anyone came to the farm while the room was under construction — and of course, everyone knew that Don didn't even smoke. But Don always referred to the project as the "secret room," and everyone played along in the game, because that was part of the magic of his creative process — creating a story that would engage the creativity of other people.

As a fellow Vanderbilt alum, Andy Grogan, and I actually built the room, we knew that it needed to be as perfect as we could get it — no small feat, considering that we were building the room in a 100-year-old barn in January with no heat. But we both had high standards and knew that Don did as well. Don didn't want perfection, but he did want people to do things as best they possibly could. He saw this as part of the artistic process: If you are going to do something, make it as good as you can.

Andy and I worked on the room weekend after weekend, and Don pushed us, and we pushed each other, to do the best work we could. We struggled with the uneven rafters and the fact that nothing in the barn was square; we fretted over every detail; we used brass screws when a nail would have sufficed; we installed wood paneling as straight as could be imagined under the circumstances. We even put insulation between the paneling and the slats of that old barn.

When the room was completed, the menfolk gathered in the secret room and held cigars (but I don't think anyone actually lit one) and some drank brandy as we sat around and admired the room. Seventeen years later, everyone still refers to that room as the "secret room." And that is the gift that Don had for creating a narrative and getting others to "do stuff."

Stacey Irvin

Don was my professor, mentor, co-collaborator, longtime friend and family. When I first took his photography course at Vanderbilt, I noticed that his assignments were very frustrating for students who were used to following clear and detailed instructions. I loved Don's teaching style. I loved his art. His class and our conversations in his studio quickly became my favorite part of the week. He wanted students to believe in and express themselves authentically, to try their best and then some, to just "Do Stuff" without being told what to do. When Don invited our class out to his house for a visit, he encouraged all of us to come back anytime. I came back and never stopped coming back.

For more than 16 years Don challenged, encouraged, supported, worked with and laughed with me. He brought people together from all walks of life and fostered an environment where anything was possible with some hard work, imagination and research. Don taught me to shoot fireworks from my head, make gunpowder from scratch, and launch rockets to the heavens. He and Sheryl created a place in the woods that is truly special ... magical, really. The Little Marrowbone Repair Corporation is a playground for imagination and possibility. I am so thankful for his friendship, generosity and influence. I miss him so.


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