Kenneth Warnock Evett, 91, Professor Emeritus in the Fine Arts Dept. at Cornell University, died May 28, 2005 in Ithaca, NY. Professor Evett was born in Loveland, Colorado on December 1, 1913, the middle son of Charles Evett and Sarah Warnock Evett. He and his two brothers left their mountain roots to move east in pursuit of careers in arts and letters. Kenneth's older brother, Paul became a Shakespeare scholar and college teacher; his younger brother, Robert, became a composer, and among his many musical accomplishments was a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra. At the same time he was the literary editor for the New Republic for 15 years.
Kenneth's memories of his childhood were rich with tales of the family's willful animals (his father ran a livery stable in Estes Park) and the equally capricious Model-T, and his mother's love of classical music and literature as well as her devotion to watercolor painting. He also recalled the pleasures of fishing for brook trout in Estes Park, playing tennis with Paul on a court the boys had carved out of a hillside, and riding on horseback through the magnificent landscape of the Rockies.
The young artist painting a sign for a neighboring ranch
Kenneth's first encounter with the American art scene came about serendipitously when he was encouraged to show some of his drawings to Thomas Hart Benton who happened to be visiting wealthy Texas neighbors in Estes Park. Benton recommended Kenneth for a scholarship to the newly founded Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs. There Kenneth met a colorful assortment of artistic celebrities and local aristocrats, as well as the woman who would become his companion for 66 years, Betty Schluss, who had recently graduated from Tufts. They enjoyed a heady mix of high-spirited Bohemian life and forays into the Rockies to picnic, sketch and ski.
After a brief and exasperating year teaching art to Denver junior high students, Kenneth was awarded a commission from the WPA's Federal Section of Fine Arts to paint a mural for the Humboldt, Nebraska Post Office. In all, Kenneth painted six murals for post offices in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.
The artist in front of the WPA mural ("Cowboys Driving Cattle", 1938) for the Caldwell, Kansas post office.
After the birth in 1941 of their first child, Dan, and with the onset of WW II, Kenneth sought work in Woodstock, NY and then after a year was lured back to Colorado Springs where, despite six-day weeks of exhausting and numbing work as a welder, again was swept up in the stimulating world of artists, musicians, and local elites. The Depression, the role of Russia in the war, the work in the factory, his left-leaning friends, and his Presbyterian sense of righteousness (instilled in him by his devoutly religious mother) all pushed Kenneth to join the Party. He left a few years later alarmed by threats against his life and appalled when Stalin's atrocities became known.
The years between 1941 and 1948 saw frequent relocations. After a year's stay in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1944, during which time his daughter, Elisa, was born, he took the family to Winston-Salem, North Carolina where he taught at Salem College. A year later he was hired by a wealthy patron of the arts to direct a small artist's colony housed in a rambling structure several miles outside Hot Springs, Virginia. Throughout these troubled and turbulent years, Kenneth continued to paint and to seek ways to make a living through his painting.
In the fall of 1948, when Kenneth was meeting with Antoinette Kraushaar, his dealer and the owner of the prestigious eponymous New York gallery, she answered a call from John Hartell, Chairman of the Find Arts Department at Cornell. Did she perhaps know of a painter who might be able to fill in for a semester? Thus began Kenneth's thirty-one years of affiliation with Cornell, primarily devoted to teaching studio art, but also spent as a passionate Cornellian who helped organize art festivals, spoke at symposia, published in Epoch, and helped save the A.D. White House from the wrecking ball. In addition, he was inordinately concerned with the fate of Cornell athletic teams, especially the football, basketball and hockey teams. He often remarked that his mood would rise or fall for days depending on the outcome of weekend games.
The artist in his Cornell studio in 1950
Increasing public recognition of Kenneth's artistic abilities and integrity also marked the years at Cornell. He had 12 one-man shows at Kraushaar and was represented in group shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. His paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Newark Museum, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute and the Montclair Museum, among many.
His son Joel was born in 1950. Four years later, Professor Evett won a nationwide juried competition to paint three murals for the Lincoln, Nebraska State Capitol building. The award not only provided him with a substantial prize with which he took his family to Rome, Italy, to spend his first sabbatical year, but also brought him some unwelcome national-level publicity when a Nebraskan legislator offered mocking comments about the "modern" art in the capital building.
The artist atop a scaffold painting one of the Nebraska State Capitol murals
Kenneth's painting and drawing style moved through several phases, from densely painted realistic figurative works of the 30s and 40s, to the starker India ink drawings based on the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the sometimes apocalyptic sumi ink landscapes of the 50s (5), and back to intensely colored oil paintings of imaginary landscapes and mythic Greek scenes.
He began painting watercolors from nature in the 1960s, at first somewhat free in the brush work and light in tonality. As he explored this difficult medium through the 1970s and 80s, his images became more saturated with color, the draftsmanship more defined and the volumes of objects more pronounced. He and Betty traveled widely in Europe, the American West
The artist at work on a Sumi ink painting
and along the coast of Maine, where he painted one or two watercolors each day, almost regardless of the weather, the terrain, or curious onlookers. Exposed to the elements and
The artist with his watercolor painting supplies on the coast of Maine
equipped only with a lightweight folding stool, a table of fine French paper, a few tubes of paints, a jar of water and a single 1" brush, Kenneth painted directly from nature, never once making a pencil sketch to guide his hand.
Kenneth was also a gifted writer. His essays in The New Republic on art, architecture, and whatever visual experience mattered to him, attracted the attention of New York magazines, one of which offered him a job as its full-time art critic. Although he could not play a note on any instrument, Kenneth loved music that ranged from the blues and jazz to classical music, especially the "sublime" Mozart. His fondness for Mozart became even more intense after he read the complete letters of Mozart. While his literary tastes were also eclectic, he particularly relished the
humanity of Anthony Trollope's novels and the beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets. He was unusually articulate for a visually-oriented person and his care with words marked and enriched his teaching style. He was open to and supportive of his students' work and would sometimes buy their creations--a sign of affirmation. Kenneth lived a long and extraordinary life, and while he faced the genuine challenges of near poverty during the Depression, keeping a family intact through World War II, and functioning in the sometimes cut-throat environments of both the academic and art worlds, he knew he lived a charmed and privileged existence. He was ever grateful for his wife's Betty years of love, lively companionship, household and editing and support and expert chauffeurship, and he took great pleasure in the lives of his children and grandchildren. Kenneth is survived by his wife Betty, his children, Daniel (Janet Snoyer), Elisa (John Miller), and Joel (Roberta Boylen) Stow, MA, his grandchildren Jessica and Willem, and as well as by numerous cousins and their children. His grandson Peter Evett predeceased him in 1995. There will be a memorial service on July 10 at 4 PM at the Andrew Dickson White House on the Cornell campus.
Originally printed in Ithaca Journal, June 7, 2005. Photographs added.