A life as bright and passionate as her art

01:00, Jun 16 2012

Jane Evans was a practising artist and a huge arts supporter and advocate, writes Jacquetta Bell.

OBITUARY - Elizabeth Jane Evans ONZM December 31, 1946 – June 8, 2012.

The last writing job I edited for Jane Evans was her patron's message in the Nelson Arts Festival programme last year. Before that there had been occasional requests for help, once when she needed an endorsement to support Lady Fiona Elworthy in a line of fur coats she was taking to New York.

Jane rang me up: "You know my little rabbit fur coat," she said in her slow way, "that one I wear to the market ..."

Really, that says quite a lot about Jane's sense of style, her national and international connections, her roots in everyday Nelson life and her attention to making an art out of shopping and meal preparation.

That's aside from her life's work in painting and supporting the arts, her feisty love for her home town and its institutions, the rich home life she enjoyed with her family and friends, and the long struggle with the illness that took her from us last weekend.


Jane Evans was the youngest child and only daughter of Nelson GP George Evans and his English-born wife Beatrice. She was born in Nelson on New Year's Eve, 1946, and with two older brothers, grew up a high-spirited tomboy, expressing her art on one notable early occasion with a free-form crayon mural on the bedroom wall.

There was a firm admonition, but painting and drawing were an innate talent, eliciting praise that encouraged the young artist, who was easily bored and distracted in other school subjects, with the exception of drama.

Carrying a sketchpad everywhere she went, Jane's first major recognition was winning the South Island Secondary Schools' Cup in 1961. Her first art exhibition was at Chez Eelco in 1965, the same year she enrolled in the School of Fine Arts at Ilam in Christchurch.

She was already a painter with a strong vigorous approach, matched by the student rebelliousness typical of the times. But the attractive dark-haired Connan Hall boarder was often absent from art school with pain and stiffness in her joints, diagnosed by her father that first summer holidays as rheumatoid arthritis.

Later, in Rotorua for treatment, her condition was recognised as systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE, a chronic inflammatory disorder that would see her hospitalised, and operated on numerous times in an effort to correct the twisted knotting of her hands and feet. Jane had one overriding reaction to her illness that didn't falter over the next five decades: she would, as much as possible, ignore it and, when it became too intrusive, tolerate and work around it.

After Ilam she left for London and studied for a year at the Waltham School of Art, leaving the formal learning environment to travel in Europe, the Bahamas and Australia. She learnt a lot from the work of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Chagall and Degas.

Her early work also shows the influence of Toss Woollaston, but the French artists are key for her treatment of the figure, and depiction of social interaction. Her subject matter has included flowers and gardens, interiors (especially when she was flatting at Warwick House in the mid-70s), people at the races or golf, lovers in cafes or bars, and character sketches of children, friends and family.

Jane's illness impacted on her art in two ways: style and subject matter. Wielding a loaded paint brush on a large canvas in her characteristic gestural sweeps was tiring and led her to experiment with acrylic paint on a smaller scale. Her interest in gouache, while inspired by Frances Hodgkins, was partly fuelled by it not being as physically demanding.

The images in her work were also influenced by her physical battles. Paintings in the early 1970s frequently exaggerated the size of hands, and her time spent in hospital with elderly arthritis sufferers was portrayed in tender depictions of the older generation.

Her choice of bright colours and flowers as subjects reflected her relief when the pain went away. "Suddenly there was this feeling of wanting above all to express the joy of living. Life was full of colour and that was what I wanted to put down in my painting."

John Coley speculates in her 1997 biography that the reason she is not significantly represented in the nation's art museums is because her paintings are not issue-driven, confrontational or conceptual.

But people loved her work and were prepared to spend months on the waiting list for a painting. In the speculative pre-crash 80s, resale prices shot up, and she spoke up, fearing the average art lover was being out-priced. In 1997, the day after her 50th birthday, Jane was made Officer of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to painting.

Jane loved her home town – its landscape, its "corner store" intimacy, its bright sunny light, the blue haven, and its heritage. In 1963 she was one of the youngest working artists accepted as a member of the Nelson Suter Art Society, and decades on was given Life Membership.

In 1979 the society premiered a documentary film on her work, later shown at Cannes. The Suter was the grateful beneficiary of a 1982 commission by the Goodman Group, Summer Siesta, one of her largest paintings, employing brilliant colours to convey a figure languidly at rest in the heat of the day.

The gallery has the biggest representation of her work in a public collection, as is appropriate given her love of Nelson and how this is translated into the vibrant colours in her paintings.

In 2008, Jane was a foundation trustee of the Bishop Suter Trust Board, a position she reluctantly resigned under doctor's orders in 2010. The board then bestowed the title of Suter Ambassador, a role she embraced, was utterly suited to and fulfilled even when gravely ill.

She worked hard to support the Suter 2000 Project and was just as committed, despite years of knockbacks, to the new development plans. Her contacts, considerable charm and charismatic belief in the Suter have brought the gallery some very generous philanthropic support, for the redevelopment and also for the collection fund.

Passion for Nelson saw Jane writing letters to the editor, haranguing mayors and even tying herself to a tree – one of the Haven Rd jacarandas, when they were threatened with the chainsaw.

She lobbied to have the ridges of the city's backdrop kept free of houses, described the loss of the old wooden Provincial Buildings as "a mortal wound", said a carpark would be built on Wakefield Quay "over my dead body" and fought to stop unattractive buildings that impeded her beloved views of the hills and the haven.

Jane was not just a practising artist, she was also a huge arts supporter and advocate. She was the resident judge in the early years of the WearableArt Awards, and would also extend her fabulous hospitality to guests here for the show, including her annual "millionaires' breakfast".

In 1995 when the Nelson Arts Festival was an unknown fledgling, Jane became its patron, lending her name and influence to help build the event. She was committed and active in the role, turning out every year in her top hat and velvet jacket, even when in frail health, to present the prizes at the Masked Parade.

With her whole life an artwork, Jane never stepped out of her decorative iron gate or even into her Provencal-inspired garden without being perfectly made up and beautifully dressed. Her house is as colourful and decorative as the Matisse paintings she loved, and her entertaining was legendary.

In the Suter's Artist's Table recipe book, Jane talks about her "sky blue awning offering shade for lengthy lunches and shelter from the dew as elbows-on-the-table dinners run long into balmy nights".

Jane was close to her two older brothers, Bill and Douglas, was a devoted aunt to George and Coral, and great aunt to Rylie and Jayda. She never married but from the late 80s David Furniss was her partner in life and business, until his death in 2001. She was a loving stepmother to David's children Kathryn and Will and a cherished granny to Levi, Milan, Kobi and Emily.

Jane had a close and devoted circle of friends who nursed her through her last weeks.

To Nelson, Jane Evans was an artist to be proud of, to the institutions she supported she was a stalwart and a lateral thinker, free with her time, her home and her contacts in the art world. To her family and friends her company was as colourful as her art.

Jane would burst forth into song at a family dinner, was word perfect in the Stanley Holloway monologue Albert and the Lion, and would chuckle wickedly at David's cartoons of local dignitaries.

Jane was a lover of life – we will miss her.