Phillip John Evett is a 93-year-old local treasure. He's exactly the kind of artist I had in mind when I started doing interviews: an accomplished, established artist whose name should be a household name in Texas, yet hasn't received nearly the recognition he deserves.
A delightful, charming Englishman with a remarkably sharp mind and quick wit, his drawings and wooden sculptures are strong, smart and amazingly complex figure studies. He began drawing as a young child, went to art school, joined the British Royal Air Force as a radio operator on bombers during WWII and polished his sculpture skills as a stone- and woodcarver for a private ecclesiastical restoration firm that restored statues and sculptures after the war. Of course, he has a million stories, and tells them as only an Englishman can. I had a delightful lunch with him, photographer Trish Simonite and Evett's wife Joanne, a psychotherapist.
What made you decide to move from England to Texas?
Well, I was ready to get out of England and my friend Dick Underwood, who I'd met in England, was working in Austin at the University of Texas Press. I only knew Texas from the movies I saw in England, so you can imagine how I pictured it. He picked me up when my ship docked in Houston and we were driving to Austin, when we pulled into a roadside diner for lunch. My first taste of American food was a hamburger and I thought I'd never tasted anything so horrible! The next day he took me to a barbecue place in Austin and everything was alright after that. And then, of course, I fell in love with Mexican food.
Have you ever wanted to move back to England?
I have never had a moment's homesickness for England.
Were you raised in an artistic household?
No, not at all. I remember drawing when I was seven years old. I brought my drawing in to my mother, who took a look at it and said, "Oh ... that's nice. You didn't get that from my side of the family." Later, when my father came home from work, I showed him the drawing, and he said, "Oh ... that's nice. You didn't get that from my side of the family."
Was there an artist who influenced you at a young age?
Yes. English artist Jacob Epstein, who helped pioneer modern sculpture. His works were controversial and he often challenged taboos on what was appropriate subject matter, especially for public artworks. He was amazing — he could make a block of marble look heavier than it actually was!
What's the most annoying trend you see in art today?
I see most schools of art as annoying.
You taught art for 28 years, both at the San Antonio Art Institute, and at Trinity University. What was the best piece of advice you gave your students?
When I taught I tried to create an atmosphere of fun. I was serious about the work, but I wanted the atmosphere to be carefree. My best piece of advice? "Never enough sanding. You can never sand too much!"
I've been warned that you have a wicked sense of humor and that you know countless dirty jokes and limericks. Where did your humor come from?
I take humor very seriously. I find politics to be an endless source — the absurdity of it all — but I think my humor was formed in my youth with the dance hall and music hall comics. Very English.
You grew up at a time when the world was in turmoil, England was being attacked by Germany and World War II was destroying civilization. Yet people always seem to romanticize the past with nostalgia. Why do you think we do that?
I think it's human nature. It seems easy to remember events and not remember the pain that went along with it.
Does your artwork come effortlessly to you or do you still agonize over it?
Oh, no, I don't agonize over it. I might agonize physically over moving some of the big pieces, but creating it comes easy.
At 93, you still get up at 6 o'clock every morning and work at your studio for four or five hours. How did you develop this work ethic?
It just comes naturally to me.
If you could go back and be frozen into a particular time in your life, would you? And what age would that be?
It would be right now. I've had a great, productive year, a book of my drawings was published and I would rather be where I am right now than at any other time in my life.
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