He Dressed Up Baltimore Art: Painter Harry Evans Jr.'s love of the city outlived him. It shines brilliantly through a retrospective of his colorful works at Morgan State University.

April 10, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Harry Evans Jr. walked the streets of Baltimore for 40 years recording the cityscape with an enduring affection, a careful attention to historical detail and an uninhibited pallette.

He saw the city with a generous, magic eye. He splashed the drabbest Baltimore street with colors as brilliant as a tropical sunset. He loved to paint a long block of rowhouses -- say "East Pratt Street near Central Avenue" -- stretching toward infinity in a blaze of purples, reds, violets, greens and yellows lush as a bank of bougainvillea.

Evans painted a city in transition, a city lost -- and occasionally recovered -- in the tumble of urban construction, reconstruction and deconstruction. His paintings often have the haunting quality of memoirs, places remembered in dreams. No one walks these Harry Evans' streets. But they are not empty. They await life like stage sets before the curtain rises.

He told friends he could feel the life even in the abandoned buildings he painted, almost as a ghostly presence.

Harry Amos Evans Jr. died almost exactly two years ago, a man who walked the city all his life and then found himself cruelly confined to a wheelchair by diabetes. He painted his beloved Baltimore almost to the end.

He made a great many friends during his long, painterly journey through the city. And led by Dr. Ted Patterson, who collected the work and admired the man, his friends have organized what is really the first one-person show of his paintings, a retrospective at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art of Morgan State University until May 4.

"I felt he had not been fully recognized as a Baltimore artist," says Dr. Patterson, who bought his first Evans painting about 30 years ago. "No show was ever dedicated just to his paintings. And this show provides an opportunity to introduce a new generation to his paintings."

Evans' streetscapes are certainly well-known and perhaps comforting to that generation of Baltimore art lovers who remember the jam-packed art festivals held around Druid Hill Park Lake, buoyant precursors of Artscape. He regularly hung his paintings at the Saturday art shows on the railings across from the "pastel row" of 26th Street and in the exhibits at the Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue.

Harry Evans painted a mellower, gentler, more hopeful city. He strode through the city, his camera ever ready to record the building, the block, the vista that caught his painter's eye.

"He never had a car. He walked," says Bernadine Howard Johnson, his sister-in-law. "He took photographs all around Baltimore city of old buildings that were going to be demolished and then years later he'd do a painting."

She owns a painting of the M.B. Klein hardware-model-train store, a folk landmark at Gay and Saratoga streets, that is in the show. Zion Lutheran Church, City Hall and the long-vanished Hearst Tower rise in the background.

"He gave me this when he was courting my sister," Johnson says. Her sister, Ann Howard Evans, died in 1985.

"He was a handsome fellow when he was young," says Bernadine Johnson. "He had chiseled features. His son looks something like him. Tall. Lean."

Later Harry Evans would appear with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, aviator glasses, a soft cap and an engaging manner.

"I walked miles and miles with him," says his son Jonathan Evans, now 36. "Through Fells Point and Tyson Street and places I can't remember at all. [In the beginning] he pulled me along in my stroller."

His sister, Suzanne, 33, recalls that their father painted in the living room of their home on Augusta Avenue.

"I'd love to sit there and watch him paint," she says. "He sat on the end of the couch with his cans of brushes, his paints and his easel, which was an old TV stand. He sketched what he was going to do and he'd play with the colors. He mixed his paints on a homemade pallette. He loved color."

He was a modest and unpretentious painter, the least bohemian of artists.

"I thought he was an extraordinary person in an ordinary way," says Dr. Patterson, who met Harry Evans when he started practicing in Dundalk three decades ago. He took over his practice from his own family doctor, Joseph H. Thomas, whose portrait he wanted to restore.

He took the painting to the Ludwig Katzenstein framing shop, then at Pratt and Sharp streets, where Evans was the restorer. He did an excellent job, and they became friends.

"He was such a kind and sensitive guy," says Dr. Patterson. "When I could afford to buy paintings, I went to one of the shows about a year later and bought my first paintings from him."

That painting -- of old rowhouses in front of the Murphy highrise project, all gone now -- is in the show. And Evans of course painted the Katzenstein shop, which is said to have been once the home of the philanthropist Moses Sheppard. The building now houses Balls, the All-American Sports Bar.

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