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Noted watercolorist and Cornell art professor Kenneth Evett dies at 91

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Kenneth Evett, painter and professor emeritus of art at Cornell University, died May 28 in Ithaca. He was 91. 

A prolific painter, he exhibited in national group shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He had works in numerous collections, including the Munson-William-Proctor Institute in Utica, N.Y., and Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, where a painting of his is now on display in the lobby. Evett also was featured in more than a dozen exhibitions at the Kraushaar Galleries in New York City. In addition, he wrote essays on art and exhibitions for The New Republic from 1972 to 1977 and for The Book Press in the mid-1990s. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1994.

While Evett had a range of subjects and worked in many mediums, including oils and sumi ink, he was perhaps best known for his richly toned and textured landscape watercolors. Accompanied by his wife, Betty, a former editor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Evett set up his easel in fields, forests and on rocky promontories in Italy, France, Ireland, Greece, Spain, England, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and scores of other places around the world as well as the United States. In the catalog that accompanied a show of Evett's work at the Johnson Museum in 1987, "Elements of Nature: Watercolors by Kenneth Evett," he described his approach: "We rent a car. [Betty] does the driving while I [am] on the lookout for a promising spot. When I find one … I contemplate the rhythmic drama of the scene and begin, always feeling that I am about to partake of a feast." 

In "What It Was Like," an article published in The Bookpress in May 1996, Evett discussed how he viewed landscapes: "Motifs extracted from nature's chaos are elements of energetic force … the visual give and take between them generates geometric patterns of diagonal, horizontal and vertical tensions that require resolution." The act of painting engaged him "in the age-old all-compelling pursuit of creative life -- the effort to make it all come out right," he wrote.

"He was extraordinarily productive in the '70s and '80s, making hundreds and hundreds of watercolors. We're still discovering some of them," said his son Dan '64, former coordinator of international admissions in the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Intercollege Program in Archaeology. 

In 1948 Evett joined Cornell's Department of Art, in what is now called the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and taught there for 32 years. He was chair during the 1970s and became emeritus in 1979. "Legions of students have learned to paint under his guidance," noted Thomas W. Leavitt, former director of the Johnson Museum, who called Evett's watercolors "an affirmation of pictorial values in the mainstream of American art."

"He was a remarkable artist," said Norman Daly, a colleague and professor of art emeritus. "He went from one medium to another, he didn't make sketches, he would just go ahead and paint directly as he drew." And while Evett had the self-confidence to critique his own work, Daly said, he was supportive of the work of other artists, "including mine, for which I am grateful."

Evett was born in Colorado in 1913. He received an M.F.A. in painting from Colorado College in 1939 and studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center under muralists Boardman Robinson, George Biddle and Henry Varnum Poor. He won commissions from the Works Progress Administration's federal section of fine arts to paint murals in several post offices in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. He also was the winner of a national juried competition to create three murals for the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol. In 1996 his retrospective exhibit at the Upstairs Gallery in Ithaca, "Kenneth Evett: From the Attic. Five Decades of Oils, Watercolors, Sumi Ink Paintings and Drawings," featured rare portraits he had made of Cornell notables Toni Morrison, Alison Lurie, Karel Husa, Archie Ammons and Mario Einaudi.

A memorial service for Evett is planned for July 10 at 4 p.m. at the A.D. White House. The historic building, which was once the residence of Cornell presidents, was slated for demolition in the 1950s to make way for a row of science building. At the time, Evett wrote a letter in the building's defense to the Cornell Alumni News, related Dan Evett. Following protests from scores of alumni, the A.D. White House was saved. It became an art museum, featuring Kenneth Evett's work in 1969, and now houses the Society for the Humanities.

In addition to his wife, Betty, and son Dan (Janet Snoyer), Evett is survived by his daughter, Elisa '67, Ph.D. '80, instructor/lecturer, Department of History of Art, 1977-81 (John Miller, M.Arch '60, professor emeritus of architecture), granddaughter Jessica Evett-Miller, assistant coordinator for university programs at the Johnson Museum, and grandson Willem Evett-Miller -- all of them Ithaca residents -- and his son Joel (Robin Boylen) of Stow, Mass. He was predeceased by a grandson, Peter, and two brothers, Paul and Robert.

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