An All-Around Artist

The artistic legacy of the late Virginia B. Evans – painter, designer, teacher and advocate from Moundsville – is examined in an impressive new book and exhibition.

Dr. John A. Cuthbert, director of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at West Virginia University Libraries, has written a book, “Virginia B. Evans: Wheeling’s All-Around Artist,” offering biographical information on the artist and featuring images of many of her paintings.

“Virginia B. Evans was a remarkable woman. Her life’s story is as compelling as her artwork,” he observed.

Cuthbert is serving as guest curator of a companion exhibition, also titled “Virginia B. Evans: Wheeling’s All-Around Artist,” opening this week at Oglebay Institute’s Mansion Museum in Oglebay Park. The collection of Evans’ paintings will remain on display through Sept. 22.

A reception for institute members only will take place at the Mansion Museum from 5-7 p.m. Friday, May 31. The exhibition will open to the public Saturday, June 1, with a 10 a.m. presentation by Cuthbert.

The publication of Cuthbert’s book is sponsored by WVU Libraries, in collaboration with Oglebay Institute. After the exhibition opens, the book will be available for purchase through WVU Libraries and will be sold at Oglebay and in assorted book shops, he said.

Christin Byrum, Oglebay Institute director of museums, said of Evans, “She deserves to be recognized and remembered for her role in elevating community culture, for her influence on her peers and students, and for the enduring value and insights of her work.”

Byrum said OI holds two Evans’ works – an oil painting and a piece of glass she designed – in its collection.

Cuthbert learned of Evans (1894-1983) in the mid-1980s while conducting research for his book, “Early Art and Artists in West Virginia.” He recalled, “Virginia B. Evans was one of the finest artists I had encountered in my research. I included three works by her in the book.”

Several years later, he visited the artist’s sister-in-law, Augusta Evans, in Glen Dale. The late Augusta Evans was well known as the longtime set designer for Oglebay Institute’s theatrical productions.

“Augusta, who passed away in 2006, deserves much credit for preserving Virginia’s legacy, not only through stewardship of the many works that were in the artist’s possession at the time of her death, but also through compilation and maintenance of biographical data documenting Virginia’s life and career,” Cuthbert noted.

The biographical records, now preserved in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, “tell a compelling story of a woman who would have been remarkable in any age but was especially so considering the time in which she lived,” he wrote in the new book’s foreward. “Intelligent, willful, strongly opinionated and extremely independent, she was a career woman at a time when marriage was considered the only ‘polite’ (in her words) vocation for a well-bred lady. Undaunted by such notions, and the scorn and ‘suspicion’ often accorded to single women, she devoted her life to the field she loved, facilitated in her efforts by a distinct talent and unbridled energy.”

Cuthbert – who deemed Evans’ work to be of “very high quality” – also found “that she was pretty much unknown (today), not only in the nation, but also in the state and in her own home. Even people in Moundsville don’t know who she was,” he said in a telephone interview.

“She is represented in very, very few institutions. Despite the fact that she exhibited successfully and quite broadly in her lifetime,” he said. “It seemed unfortunate that she was as little known as she is today.”

With the new book, he said, “I hope it will put her on the map, both in this state and far beyond. I think she is deserving of some national recognition. My hope is that some more information will come to light.

“I had a relatively short time line in putting this together … My hope is that this study will bring more works to life and bring more appreciation to her work.”

Drawing from biographical material and memories shared by Evans’ family, Cuthbert said, “She was a very interesting person. She was remarkably independent for the age in which she lived.”

Citing incidents from her life, Cuthbert said, “She chose to sail to Europe, on one of her four excursions, on a merchant vessel. She may have been the only passenger and certainly the only woman. That’s pretty remarkable. I can’t see women doing that now. She had a lot of guts.”

He added, “At the same time, she was extremely fashion conscious. She had her own style. Somehow she was able to combine her personal elegance as a person with the rugged adventures that she took. She was a unique individual.”

Evans traveled and studied in Europe and in various parts of the United States, but, except for a few years late in life, she continued to reside in her hometown of Moundsville. Cuthbert doesn’t know why Evans didn’t pursue a career in bigger cities, but theorizes “she was a person for whom home is where the heart is.”

He observed, “She grew up in the greater Wheeling area. Her roots were in that area. She kept coming back to it. She always wanted to come back to it. I think somehow the region and the landscape were in her blood. The whole way she goes about creating landscape shows me that West Virginia was just part of her psyche.”

From an artistic perspective, Evans appears to have exemplified her feelings for her home region by “her high horizon lines in her paintings. That’s pretty unusual,” Cuthbert related. “In almost all her landscape works, you see only a ribbon of sky. I relate that to the hill and valley landscape of West Virginia. It indicates to me that she was one of those people who felt secure in her hill and valley culture of West Virginia.”

He commented, “There is something comforting about being nestled in the mountains. That could have been part of her psyche. She was a worldly person. There is the episode where she moved to Florida. She had a lot of success down there, but she eventually did come home.”

The author and curator added, “Out of the top artistic figures in early West Virginia art history, most of them did go on to spend the greater part of their careers elsewhere. Virginia had a more long-term presence and impact in the state than some of the other leading names in art history in the state, and I think that is significant.”

The first section of Cuthbert’s book offers a biographical sketch of Evans, illustrated with vintage photographs and examples of her paintings. The second section contains Cuthbert’s notes on the paintings. Plates of Evans’ work comprise the third section of the book, with 44 pages, each devoted to a single painting.

The Mansion Museum exhibit will be divided into six major periods of Evans’ life: The Early Years (1894-1920); Early American Impressionism (1920-32); Regionalism (1932-42); Glass (1942-57) and Her Final Years and Legacy (1977-83). It will be displayed in the Sauder Gallery of the mansion and is included with the museum general admission fee.

After its closing at Oglebay, the exhibit will be displayed at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston. Later, it will be installed at the West Virginia and Regional History Collection’s Davis Family Galleries at WVU in Morgantown.

To help underwrite the exhibit at the Mansion Museum and the public programming, OI received an American Masterpieces grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and a mini-grant from the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.

Evans was born in Moundsville on June 5, 1894. She received private art instruction from Mary Patterson of Wheeling. She attended Central School in Moundsville, then went to Madison Institute in Richmond, Ky., for a year and transferred to Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, Wheeling, where she graduated in 1914 with a diploma and a gold medal for excellence in the field of art.

She studied at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh for a year, taught in Moundsville a year, returned to Carnegie for a year and became an art teacher in Scottdale, Pa., for two and one-half years. She began participating in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s annual juried exhibits in 1923.

In 1924, Evans received a prestigious fellowship from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation at Tiffany’s summer mansion, Laurelton Hall, on Oyster Bay, Long Island. That fall, she had her first New York exhibit.

Evans returned to Mount de Chantal as art instructor in 1927. “By this point in her career, Evans was a well-trained professional in the field of art, and a talented painter in her own right. She was also a thoroughly modern thinker with a decidedly feminist bent,” Cuthbert wrote.

After travels in Europe, she had solo shows in Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Parkersburg, as well as “an assortment of other regional and national exhibition opportunities,” Cuthbert noted.

Evans served as president and mentor of the Wheeling Art Club and was “a leading artistic light within the West Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs, both locally and statewide,” he wrote.

She continued to teach art at the Mount until at least 1933 and, in 1936, joined the West Liberty State College faculty as associate professor of art for two years.

A frequent public speaker, “she was a tireless crusader on behalf of art education. As with most subjects, she held strong opinions and was not shy about expressing them,” Cuthbert wrote. “She believed that art was among the most fundamental needs of mankind and that ‘creative forces’ were essential to a progressive civilization …”

Evans continued to exhibit her work with acclaim during the late 1930s, both locally and nationally. She returned to Mount de Chantal as director of art in the fall of 1940. During World War II, she attempted unsuccessfully to gain appointment to federal programs designed to “document” the war.

In 1942, Carl W. Gustkey, president of Imperial Glass Co. in Bellaire, hired Evans as a freelance designer. Earlier, she did design work for Fostoria Glass of Moundsville and Warwick China Co., Wheeling. In the 1950s, she created designs for Viking Glass in New Martinsville and collaborated with F&M Artware in Paden City.

Regarding the Imperial project, Cuthbert wrote, “As the project moved forward, Evans sought a voice in everything … Despite tensions within the company and mounting costs, Gustkey generally embraced his artist’s ideas and ideals. Through this collaboration, what was initially intended to be modest dinnerware evolved into Imperial Cathay Crystal, a distinctive line of functional and decorative gift objects that would include some of the finest pieces of molded crystal glassware made in America.”

Imperial Cathay Crystal was introduced in 1949, winning fans, but “fared less well” from an economic standpoint, Cuthbert said.

In 1957, Evans moved to Florida, opening a studio in Orlando and purchasing a studio home in Naples two years later. Cuthbert said, “After years of relative inactivity, Evans experienced a renewed interest in painting in Naples, much of it inspired by the sea. Her output during this period is highly eclectic in nature …”

Evans returned to West Virginia periodically. She had a one-woman show at Oglebay Institute in 1961 and participated in another exhibit there in 1968. In 1972, she was one of five West Virginia artists commissioned to create artwork for the state’s permanent art collection.

In 1974, at age 81, Evans returned to live with her brother, Laurence Evans, and his family in Glen Dale. She died at Mound View Health Care Center, Moundsville, on March 23, 1983.

Cuthbert concluded, “There can be little doubt that Evans is among the foremost figures in West Virginia art history … The extensive body of her artwork which survives is worthy of enduring recognition, not only in the Mountain State but well beyond, for its inherent quality and its evidence in representing the art of its time and place.”