Story by Carolyn Males
Maggie Evans’s sultry voice drifts across the room like a soft breeze on the beach in Bahia. She’s singing “The Girl From Ipanema” in Portuguese and the sensuous sound transports me back to that faraway shore. But in reality, I’m sitting on a coveted bar stool at Red Fish on Hilton Head on a Wednesday night listening to John Brackett’s quintet playing cool jazz inflected with a Brazilian beat.
A few years ago, bassist-vocalist Maggie Evans might have looked out as she performed and noted us folks perched at the bar and sitting at tables. Then she would have gone back to her studio, picked up a stick of charcoal and sketched us out as ghostly figures.
Maggie Evans’s “Parallel Narratives” opens on Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 21 at the J Costello Gallery in the Red Fish restaurant building on Hilton Head Island. jcostellogallery.com, 843-686-6550. She also performs Wednesday evenings from 7-10 p.m. with the John Brackett Quintet at Red Fish.
But nowadays, she’s more likely to focus on the arrangement of our chairs, imagining them in stark rooms, all bodies having vanished into the ether. Yet despite the absence of people in her latest paintings and 3-D art installations, she’s offering an even stronger narrative about the way we think about our place in society and arrange ourselves accordingly.
I’d briefly met the willowy artist a while back at the J Costello Gallery, located mid-restaurant at Red Fish. There I’d found Evans’s large grey-tone paintings of urban skyscrapers and deserted spaces compellingly mysterious. So when gallerist Judy Costello told me of Evans’s upcoming January show here, I headed to the painter’s Savannah studio to see her new work and learn how her world view of human hierarchies and interactions informs her art.
As we stood in her tidy studio amid partially finished oils and notebooks of sketches, she talked about her childhood in Logan, Utah. Her parents, both musicians, instilled her love of music, encouraging her classical training on piano. But it was her grandfather, renowned painter Harrison T. Groutage, who spurred her to follow her artistic muse. “The piano was part of what I did during the day,” she says. “But the art was a compulsion. I was always drawing.” She would earn a degree from Utah State where her grandfather taught and then go on for an MFA at SCAD where she is now a part-time professor of foundation studies.
As we spoke, Carter, her German shepherd-Bernese mountain dog mix, stood outside the window looking in. Dog hair does not mix well with paint, especially on Evans’s canvases where she favors a flat texture enhanced by diffused light, a detail that adds a slightly surreal edge to her paintings.
[LOCAL Life] Tell us about your earlier bar scene series.
[Maggie Evans] I did the bar series when I began performing as a musician in a blues band while in grad school. I found it interesting to be on stage in the same position every night, observing people coming in and out and seeing the same patterns and interactions over and over.
[LL] The people in those pieces are ghostly figures.
[ME] In my work I always have this desire to keep it not too literal. I want it to feel a little bit vague, not too specific. That allows the work to be more universal. It kept me from committing to who the people actually were because the work was more about their behavior and interactions.
[LL] So how did you end up creating art about human relationships without people in them?
[ME] I was doing a ten-month artist residency in Hangzhou, China, and I was experiencing their culture through my daily routine yet I was always apart from the culture. But I found that there were so many similarities between us and Chinese –– how we interact, what we enjoy, and our initial reactions to things.
When I started eliminating people in my art, I found the spaces so much more compelling. I began looking at chairs like groups of people moving. Their emptiness gives you this quirky view of detachment but even so it’s still a narrative about people. I’m examining our desire for solitude, contrasted with our need to organize and be part of a group. And I like to keep it all a little vague so you don’t have the whole story.
[LL] You grew up hiking and skiing in Utah, yet many of your painting are urban cityscapes, also devoid of people.
[ME] I started these cityscapes while I was in China. They also reflect how people fall into patterns willingly. I want to put the viewer in the middle of a maze of buildings and I want it to feel very dense and a little claustrophobic.
[LL] Is there a relationship between your being a bassist in a band and a painter who loves patterns?
[ME] As a bassist, you’re the stabilizer. It’s very regulated, like a pulse. Maybe that’s part of the draw of patterns for me. Regulation baselines are based off steady rhythms. But it’s more than rhythms. In fact, when I take a solo, I have to get out of that rhythm.
Music and art satisfy different parts of my personality. I love being in the studio by myself but then music is a social art form. You have to be with the other musicians to create it.