“Keeping the Flame alive”
Last updated 24th May 2019
Joan Evans: An Artist Remembered
By Vernon Buxton
Personality, 22 April 1994
Isn’t it such a pity that so many good artists have to die before their work assumes monetary value? Poor Vincent van Gogh and a number of others would doubtless have something to say about it …
And Joan Evans, before her death in Harare in 1986, this popular landscape artist was asking only a few hundred rands for her now famous Zimbabwean and South African scenes. Today you would have to fork out thousands for the same paintings – if you were fortunate to find one available.
Mostly these treasured works are held onto for dear life and only handed down in families, seldom finding their way onto the open market.
Yes, Joan Evans had many fans. While her oils mainly ended in this part of the world, some found their way to America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and even Russia.
Indeed, it was well known that foreign diplomats in Zimbabwe would go to great lengths to obtain a Joan Evans to take home as a warm reminder of that country’s wonderful scenic beauty.
Two exhibitions which Joan held in Durban in the 1960s were both sellouts, with people queuing for the doors to open.
But Joan didn’t really need exhibitions – she could never keep up with the demand.
While art critics might describe her paintings as chocolate-boxy, this was the very reason people adored them.
When in full production flow, Joan had anything up to 100 commissions lined up in her tiny notebook – “and the critics had to put that in their pipes and smoke it” says her proud son, Robin Evans, an architect who lives in the scenic Zimbabwean town of Mutare.
“The essence of mum’s appeal I think, was her excellent draughtsmanship and her absolutely accurate perspective,” he says. She was also meticulous with her choice and use of colours.
Robin recalls how his mother had over the years built up a large library of sketches, which she used for reference.
“My parents would drive into the bush, the mountains, wherever, and there on the roadside out would come the sketchpad and within minutes mum had the scene before her perfectly outlined. In its roughest form her perspective was always spot on.”
Back in her studio on a verandah at the Evans’ residence in the Harare suburb of Strathaven, Joan was disciplined about her work. After getting the domestic chores behind her, she was usually at her easel by 9.15 am. Apart from Wednesday afternoons, she rarely cleaned her brushes before 5 pm. In later years her husband, Walter, by now a retired finance company executive, would be working nearby with a hammer and saw to produce her frames.
Joan was born in Pretoria in 1905, the middle child of Colonel Algernon Capell, himself an artist of fair renown who almost annually trekked through the Zambezi Valley on foot. There he would sketch the dry, rugged mopani bushveld and later transfer the scenes onto canvas.
As a schoolgirl, Joan did all the posters and backdrops for school plays. As far as she knew, she was the first pupil to matriculate in art in what was then Rhodesia.
Joan and Walter were married in the 1930s. In their earlier years they were struggling tobacco farmers at Bindura, north of Harare. Life was tough for everyone in the 1930s and with three sons, one who died of diphtheria, and a daughter, the family’s finances were tight. Joan realised that her talent would have to be exploited in order to properly educate the children and help make ends meet.
Finally, when Robin and his brother, David both decided to become architects, the Evans’ sold their farm and moved to the then Salisbury in 1952. There she found a market at her door.
After Walter died in 1982, Joan stayed on in the house for a while before moving to a place for senior citizens. But she continued to paint as avidly as ever, making a fair living out of her work. In retrospect, one realizes she should have made much more. But Joan was happy just making others happy.
Then fate intervened – and in a manner which is difficult to reconcile. Joan developed cataracts in both eyes. Even though she underwent successful operations to remove them, “sadly her work was never quite the same again,” says Robin. “We noticed her paintings had become brighter and more unrealistic as she struggled to cope with contact lenses.” Already saddened by the loss of her husband and the premature death of her daughter through illness, Joan perhaps realising she was beginning to lose her touch, became melancholy and withdrawn. For some inexplicable reason she went on diet, losing weight to the point of anorexia, and to add to her woes she fell at home and broke her hip, ending up in Harare’s St. Giles Rehabilitation Center.
About a month later, shortly before she was to be discharged, Joan decided she’d had enough.
One evening in April 1986, in the solitude of her room at St. Giles, the now deeply depressed artist took her own life in the gentlest way possible, by pulling a bag over her head.
Her family and friends were devastated. No one realized that such a gentle old soul could be so troubled. For the public, a light went out on an exceptional talent.
But her spirit, infused in her paintings, endures in the homes of her family, her friends and in those of many appreciative strangers near and far.
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