Waves of Grace

Natick painter seeks safe harbor after Katrina's devastation

After Hurricane Katrina roared through her childhood world, painter Carolyn Evans unleashed a storm across her own canvases.

From her Natick home studio, she salvaged the New Orleans where she was born and raised in the inflamed colors of memory and loss.

Stick-figure humans rush from the ocean. A surge of green and black waves batter a fragile house. A pitiless orange sun bakes the storm-soaked land.

Evans is showing 15 powerful new paintings this month at the Chase Gallery in Boston. They range in size from 14 inches to 70 inches across.

Like an ark of pigment and possibility, they carry her through a real and remembered deluge to comforting shores.

The exhibit, "Catching A Wave," runs through April 28. An artist's reception will be held tomorrow from 5 to 7 p.m. in the gallery at 129 Newbury St.

"New Orleans was always close to my heart . Once you've lost something, you realize how much you loved it, " said Evans, "I feel like I've lost the city I love."

Over the last two decades, Evans has created a signature style of simplified figures and shapes composed in enigmatic tableaux. She uses lush impasto to render her scenes with the lurid immediacy of a tropical fever.

Her paintings render the natural world with a childlike lucidity as if shimmering in gasoline vapors.

In an introduction to the catalog accompanying the show, Katherine French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, observes Evans' "simplified figures" have been compared to Pablo Picasso. Paul Klee and Mark Rothko. " She uses shape and color to generate emotion – shape and color that gather force when viewed abstractly," French wrote.

In several canvases, like " Water Dance," Evans incorporates symbolic figures reminiscent of Marc Chagall of fish-like clouds and houses with human. While these works convey a personal intensity. Evans said they also display the composition, color and spatial values of "traditionally good paintings." "I hope people come away seeing these as good, strong works," she said.

Evans is married to John Evans who has earned a national reputation for his gorgeous land and seascapes.

Carolyn Evans new works were born in the personal and collective turmoil of 2005.

Early that year, her mother died in New Orleans, leaving the family home in Old Metarie, Jefferson Parish, to Evans and her sister. Five months later, Katrina made her landfall, flooding the home in several feet of water.

"My paintings aren't playful anymore," Evans said. "They're about tragedy."

Over the last 20 years, Evans has shown her work in 26 solo exhibitions and more than 50 group shows. She described her work as depicting "the struggle about who I am." "They're dreamy but tell little stories if you look into them. I'm not sure everyone sees the same story," she said .

Evans' paintings are part of several public and private collections, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and Wellington Management of Boston. In addition to the Chase Gallery, she shows her work at the Carol Craven Gallery in Vineyard Haven on Martha's Vineyard and the Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans.

In "Catching A Wave." Evans' new works reflect both private and public loss.

On one level, they evoke Katrina's devastating impact on me Gulf Coast in sinister tropical colors like an unhealed yet beautiful wound. Gardens are flooded, houses threatened, the natural equilibrium destroyed.

While she had left New Orleans 30 years ago to study in Boston and later marry, her family home had always preserved ties to her identity.

In images like "Goin' to the Jazz Fest" and "Day at the Breach," the once lively city has been inundated.

While her images do not seem overtly political, Evans blames the federal and local governments for a lack of preparedness that led to multiple fatalities and enormous property loss. "The anger comes because this didn't have to happen," she said. "A million people were displaced because (the government) didn't take action."

Yet viewers will also see Evans ' new works evoke the double - edge loss of her mother and the house where her family had lived for more than 5O years.

I'm trying to get out of this mode." She said . "But it comes back to haunt me."

After me house was flooded, she and her sister had to sell at a loss leaving her bereft of lifelong ties to an area that held powerful, if conflicted, memories.

"I've always painted like I've been on the edge of earth and sanity, judging from being an artist and a mother." Evans said. "I felt displaced. ...I wanted to enjoy New Orleans as a native."

While Evans' new work often suggests lost ties, one of her most striking canvases, "The Cumquat Tree Thrives," evokes a sense of human and natural equilibrium restored.

A tree offers fruit and shade. The sun shines but does not scorch. The storm has passed.

Like a swimmer daring riptides, Evans' new work carries her through fearful currents to the promise of a safe harbor.

Chris Bergeron , MetroWest Daily News