Robert E. Evans draws on his legacy to create his present.
When the distinguished Five Points resident strolls down the street, people stop to say hello. And though he has plenty of friends, Evans says things haven't always been so easy: "I felt alone a lot in my childhood because I was searching for my identity. Now I'm fifty years old and still searching." Throughout his life, though, art has been a constant. "I can't tell you why I do [art]. I have just always done it. Even as a youngster, my kindergarten teachers encouraged me to draw," he says.
A featured exhibitor at this weekend's Denver Black Arts Festival, the self-taught Evans is an accomplished artist recognized for his contributions to the community. He has been awarded several commissions from the Denver City Council, erected multiple municipal murals, and works with the Sankofa Art Collective, which hangs exhibits every month on the third floor of the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. Wholly dedicated to his craft, Evans attributes his drive to a higher power. "My main motivation comes from my spirituality," he says. "God put me here, taught me everything I know and put these people in my life. If I ever gave up, I might be blocking my own blessings."
Divine intervention aside, Evans is proficient in creating his own good fortune. Beating out many others, he was chosen to paint a portrait of the late Hiawatha Davis Jr. because he submitted a painting of the celebrated councilman rather than the customary artist portfolio. Last year, when he attended the dedication ceremony for the Blair-Caldwell library, named after community leaders Omar Blair and Elvin R. Caldwell, Evans noticed something was amiss. "I went in there and didn't see any portraits, and said,'Something ain't right.' You don't dedicate a building to someone and not have the man's portrait hanging on the wall."
Evans left the library, only to return with a proposal in hand: He would paint both of the black leaders' portraits and donate one. Not only did city council members agree, but they also commissioned Evans to paint an image of Charles R. Cousins, for whom the plaza adjoining the library is named.
Perhaps Evans isspiritually aligned with the universe, because as soon as the three portraits were finished last March, Caldwell and Blair died, just thirty days apart. Evans takes solace in the fact that both men were able to see his finished product. "I'll never forget the looks on their faces; that makes it all worth it," he says. "I got to be a part of these great men's legacies, and for me, this is a labor of love."
Although recognized for his portraiture, Evans deems his favorite a piece he titled "Paths to a Dream," which features African-American visionaries moving from a slave ship to a mountaintop. "That piece was really healing for me," he said. "As I did it, I realized my little plight in life is very small compared to what other people have gone through. I mean, people had to sneak out into the woods with a lantern to learn how to read. The dream was built on the back of a lot of other people's ideals and ideologies."
Evans is proud of his heritage but maintains that he is not simply an African-American artist who paints black culture; he also enjoys the quick sketches purchased by people of all color at events like this weekend's festival. "I depict a lot of the African-American struggle in my work, but I'm not trying to corner myself in. I do everything I can to identify with everyone's experiences. I get in where I fit in, and I'm trying to fit in everywhere," he says. "My mission is to touch everyone -- every race, every color and every creed. I do want people to understand the African-American experience, but also the human experience."