If you wish to visit Evelyn Reyes at Creativity Explored, an art studio and exhibition space in San Francisco for adults with developmental disabilities, the specific day you attend will determine where the artist will be in her creative routine. If you enter the studio on a Monday, you will almost certainly find her sitting with a selection of her signature abstracted shapes on paper spread out before her. For the entirety of that day, with the exception of lunch, Evelyn will spend hours ritualistically contemplating her work.
Evelyn spends every Tuesday creating two identical drawings. In the morning she procures two pieces of 11”x17” paper (the only size she will work on) and oil pastels. Using no visual aids, she places the first piece of paper on her drawing board and until lunch boldly outlines and colors rows of identical shapes with a ruler and sticks of pastel. For the past eleven years, the sole subject of Evelyn’s art has been carrots. In the last three of those seven years, she has been in a black and white phase, and has not diverged from creating white carrots on black paper. Generally drawn in groups of three, these carrots are intensely saturated with multiple layers of pastel. When her stick runs out, she collects the small remnants into a ball which she uses to complete the work. Finally she removes every extraneous smudge from the page with an eraser.
Lunch break is also a ritual. At her work space she carefully moves aside her art and arranges her food on a paper towel. She separates each food item in a linear fashion, in the same way she organizes her carrot drawings. After eating, she cleans the table and then scrapes her drawing board with a pallet knife. She then begins to create her second piece of the day, which is almost always identical to the first: another simple row of black and white carrots.
Evelyn ends her day with what can be perceived as a sacred ritual. She silently walks around the studio protectively cradling both finished pieces in her arms, as if she were holding a child. She stops to meditate in each corner of the bustling room, handling the items with care and reverence, treating them as if they are idols or fragile, delicate objects. With limited ability to verbalize her thoughts, these gestures may be one of the only ways she is able to convey the pride and attachment she has to her work.
The final part of Evelyn’s art making process is clean up. After bringing her drawings back to her desk, she positions them in different ways on the table, stacking and then unstacking them, rotating them and spacing them apart from each other. Throughout this process she rests and takes a moment to look at the work repositioned. Once she completes this arranging, Evelyn places the drawings back in her arms and slowly brings them to her place of storage, ready to go home. Evelyn repeats the process of creating and contemplating every week, spending three of her days drawing and two observing her work.
Evelyn’s daily artistic ritual seems essential to understanding her relationship to her work. Her art practice is one of repetition and intention, an intensive study in a singular symbol. Returning to the same image day in and day out, it is as if she is paying homage to something sacred; it becomes her way of life, perhaps even her religion.
Born in 1957, Evelyn has been making art from an early age. In 2002, she joined Creativity Explored in San Francisco’s Mission District. Staff provide encouragement, support, and assistance in developing her artistic career. An enthusiastic member of this artists’ community, Evelyn is a joy to be around. She loves to greet visitors and celebrate holidays, often dressed for the occasion. She is a prolific artist and in her time at the studio has made hundreds of oil pastel drawings. Visual Arts Instructor Mara Poliak, who has worked with Evelyn for many years, believes “it is in her blood to be an artist.”
At first glance her signature shape may not suggest a carrot. The chunky oval has two triangular “feet” and a protruding “stem” on its right hand side. The minimalist shapes have a flat, reductive quality. The omission of background and other related objects isolates and decontextualizes each shape. But viewed as a group, the shapes form controlled, beautiful patterns floating in space. Is this what Evelyn sees when she eyes a bunch of carrots in a grocery store? Are they symbols for something else? It is left to the viewer to interpret.
Evelyn has not always drawn the same image in the same way. When she first joined Creativity Explored, she was inspired by other objects such as garbage cans and cakes. Over time, these other images slowly faded out, and today carrots are her sole focus. She has gone through various phases using different colored papers and pastels, as well as lining the carrots in different directions and patterns. The form has evolved to include a stem on the right side, which was previously absent. Preferring to work at her own pace and with media of her choosing, Evelyn is occasionally open to suggestions by her visual instructors and once created a series of graphite carrots on small, individual pieces of wood instead of paper. The resulting one-of-a-kind wood assemblage was purchased by Community Housing Partners and is on permanent display at the Richard Apartments in San Francisco.
Three years ago, at a Fourth of July picnic organized by the art studio, Evelyn showed a sign of moving on to a new subject. While other artists were talking, eating food, and playing games, the staff noticed her pick up a stick and draw a symbol in the sand resembling the letter “m.” When asked what the image represented, she answered “a peanut.” Wondering if this indicated a shift for Evelyn, her instructor observed her carefully the next day. In the morning, Evelyn picked up her 11”x17” paper, pastel and ruler, and again began drawing carrots.
Acknowledged for the dedication and commitment they represent, Evelyn’s compositions have garnered both national and international attention in the art world. In 2011, a selection of her work was included in Create, the travelling group exhibition curated by Lawrence Rinder and Matthew Higgs, Director of New York’s White Columns, which opened at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Several of Evelyn’s artworks were later acquired by the museum. In the same year, she exhibited at Three Forms, Ampersand International Arts in San Francisco. She was also included in The Museum of Everything: Exhibition #4 in London, Outside In: The Art of Inclusion at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, and the New Zealand Art Fair in Auckland, New Zealand. Most recently, Evelyn’s work was exhibited at New York City’s Outsider Art Fair 2015, presented by Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. The UCSF Bishop Collection acquired a series by Evelyn, and her work has been purchased by many other private collectors. CB2, Crate and Barrel’s retail store for furniture and home decor, also has two pillow designs based on Evelyn’s carrots.