Lucky is the artist who bonds with a significant place. Georgia O’Keeffe had her Abiquiu, Agnes Pelton her Mt. San Jacinto, and Susan Smith Evans–who died in an accident on March 6, 2017–her Cahuilla Hills, a rustic hideaway just outside Palm Desert. Drive three miles up Highway 74 from 111 and you’ll find a neighborhood graced with natural landscaping and remnants of 1940s jackrabbit homesteads; it feels more like Joshua Tree and the high desert than the Coachella Valley.
A printmaker, painter and photographer, Susan Smith Evans taught in the College of the Desert (COD) art department for more than 24 years. She was active with the Desert Art Center, the La Quinta Museum, Palm Springs Art Museum, Venus Studios and other local institutions. Students and colleagues throughout the Valley are mourning the loss of this major force in desert art. Read their tributes to the artist at the end of this article.
To learn more about Susan and her slice of desert, I made the pilgrimage up the winding road to her homestead. There to greet me was Susan’s husband, Ron Evans, a former COD ceramics and pottery professor. Despite his recent loss, Ron was welcoming and effusive. Susan never liked to talk about her own work and he is determined to do it for her now.
Susan’s desert saga really begins in 1979, before she and Ron even met. Ron took a long hike from Magnesia Falls Canyon, across the front of Haystack Mountain and down Wildcat Canyon one day. Near the end of his trek he stood on a knoll in the Cahuilla Hills and admired the view looking east over Palm Desert. He said to his hiking buddy: “I’m going to buy this property.”
When Ron first saw the neighborhood it was sparsely settled, with tiny cabins dotting the hills. In 1938 the US government had passed the Small Tract Act, a scaled-down version of the original Homestead Act of 1862. The plan allowed urbanites to claim five-acre tracts in then-undesirable desert areas. Most of the homesteads were in Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, but the Cahuilla Hills was one area in the Coachella Valley deemed worthless enough to qualify for the government program.
Harried LA office workers plunked down their $5 and claimed five-acre parcels in the Hills, “proving up” their claims with small cinderblock huts. There was no water or electricity and few roads. In the following years the area remained a haven of simplicity, sectioned off aesthetically and philosophically from the wealthy developments surrounding it. (More recently, though, the Cahuilla Hills has been sprouting lavish mansions.)
Even though the land was not for sale, Ron found the property owner and managed a deal to buy the place. It came complete with an open-air shack left by a pioneering homesteader.
Later, in 1987, Ron met Susan when she came to interview for a job at COD. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Susan had earned a BFA from the University of Nebraska and an MFA and Art Therapy certificate from the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Ron and Susan’s first date was a year-long round-the-world trip studying ceramics with traditional potters in Japan and India.
You’d think that the year abroad would be the formative experience for an artist, but Susan’s true formation began when the couple returned to the three-acre plot of desert in the Santa Rosa mountains. Ron and Susan enclosed the open end of the lean-to and moved into the 12×18 shack, coping without electricity for the first six months. They slept on the roof and learned to read the stars. In an alcove on one end of the shack, they each prepared their art lessons. “I felt like a homesteader myself,” Ron says.
Sometimes colleagues from COD drove up the twisting road and gathered on the shanty’s roof for parties. Former art department chair Hovak Najarian remembers the many citrus trees Ron planted and says it was like the Garden of Eden. (Eventually the couple would build a larger house, and the old cabana would become part of Ron’s pottery studio.)
In the Cahuilla Hills, Susan found her place. “It’s like when you find something you’ve been looking for all your life,” says Ron. The kangaroo mice and great horned owls, creosote and cholla, Wildcat Canyon and Haystack Mountain–all became part of her “menu of images”.
The couple planted 300 trees: jacaranda, tipu, palo verde, eucalyptus, mangoes, papaya, guava, orchids and every kind of citrus. The trees became an enduring source of contemplation and imagery for Susan. In the last year, especially, she became enchanted with the trees on the property. She planted, transplanted and painted them, even weaving their twigs and seedpods into her assemblages. Her trees star in her painting Trees In My Hand that appeared in the recent La Quinta Museum “Tell Me a Story” exhibit.
“I care for the trees as my grandparents cared for corn and wheat,” Susan wrote, referring to her grandparents’ Kansas farm. “My hands are my tools. The lines in my hands, etched deeper by the passage of time, echo the shapes of branches.”
Along with tending the orchard, Susan was busy launching the photography and print making programs at COD. “She took off like Johnny Appeleseed all over the desert,” Ron says. She was spreading the message of art from Palm Springs to Oasis and out to Twentynine Palms, where she painted a mural of Bill and Prudie Underhill, owners of the 1930s Desert Trail newspaper.
In all, Susan completed some 30 murals in locations including the Van Buren Elementary School in Indio, the Palm Desert Library community room and the Moloka’i Art Center in Hawaii. Over the years, her work appeared at the La Quinta Arts Festival, the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of Art, 29 Palms Art Gallery, Riverside Art Museum, Palm Desert Visitor Center and more. She judged in the La Quinta art show for 20 years, and worked with kids at the Middle School Art Project of the Desert Art Center. “She was a vital force for art, the people’s art,” Ron says.
Susan once wrote: “I believe strongly in the value of the study of art by anyone, at any age, regardless of ‘talent’.”
In her final days, she was working full throttle and appearing in four local shows–the Tell Me a Story exhibit at the La Quinta Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum’s artist council show at UC Riverside-Palm Desert, along with exhibits at the Desert Art Center and the CREATE Center for the Arts in Palm Desert. “I was so happy for her in the last months,” Ron says. “Her color palette became happier and brighter, expressing nature and the joy of living in it.”
Then, on March 6, 2017, Susan’s Toyota started to roll down the slight incline of her driveway, running her over and causing fatal injuries. She was 68. More than 300 people traveled up the road to the homestead for a memorial.
A shady lane leads to the nearly hidden house, camouflaged by the trees Ron and Susan planted. In front is the Valley view that inspired Ron’s bid on the property. Out back is a sheer drop-off to Wildcat Canyon, and the path where Susan hiked down to the wash for her frequent walks.
On the day I visited, the first thing I saw when I entered by the kitchen door was the cat, Yeti (cats loom large in Susan’s art), and a huge painting–Grandparents–that I take to be Susan’s signature piece. It shows her grandparents sitting before a window; the window opens onto wild badlands. The couple is from Kansas yet the view outside their window is the California desert. The melding of aging human hands with the aged and folded land is a favorite theme of Susan’s.
Susan’s prints and paintings hang on every wall of the house, including the bathroom. She painted on the fireplace, and on the window seat–where bighorn sheep came down regularly during the artist’s last winter. The sheep would peer in the window at the couple having coffee.
As I looked around the house I saw more of her greatest desert hits. One painting shows Respighi (the Evans’ late cat named for an Italian composer) throwing a giant shadow; both shadow and cat are looking expectantly into Wildcat Canyon.
Another classic hangs above the bed: When Chuckwallas Dream (a chuckwalla is a super-sized, baggy-skinned desert lizard.) Ron explained that he would pick up the baby chuckwallas who darted into the house in the fall, attracted by the ringing of their telephone. “They thought it was their mama,” Ron says. Susan took photos of the babies Ron scooped up, and began to incorporate chuckwallas in her work. In When Chuckwallas Dream, a lizard sits in Ron’s hands. The chuckwalla is surveying the world from the vantage of the Highway 74 lookout–except the Valley floor is devoid of houses and highways.
What would a chuckwalla dream about? Apparently the same thing the early homesteaders dreamed of: a landscape untouched by civilization. (Ron adds that some of their baby chuckwallas ended up at the Living Desert and go by the names Chuck E. Walla and Chuck A. Walla.)
Near the end of my visit, we prepared to enter Susan’s studio. The door was closed and I felt some trepidation. The artist departed so suddenly; it felt strange to enter the room where her work was abruptly halted.
But when the door opened, the somber feeling vanished. Light and animation spilled out. It was obvious a lot of joyful activity had gone on in here. The cabinets and floors were properly splattered with paint. Drawings feverishly completed were tacked up all over the walls. Over the door Susan had written in pencil: I must do work that I believe in.
While there are so many objects to catch your attention, most riveting to me was the curio case of wonders–found objects Susan collected on the property. There are coyote melons, a petrified lizard, birds nests, the feather of a great horned owl, eucalyptus twigs and seed pods, rocks, pottery shards and snakeskins. Susan didn’t like spiders but she loved snakes. Ron says they’ve relocated at least 40 rattlers gently away from the property.
There was a painting on the easel and more propped below; Susan liked to work on several canvases at one time. The painting she was working on most recently is a view of her beloved Wildcat Canyon. On a walk after a rainstorm Susan had discovered seasonal puddles where there were none before. The painting shows a fractured rock with a temporary pool, reflecting Susan’s interest in the “dynamic juxtaposition” of life and death, old and new, destruction and creation.
Yeti the cat jumped to his usual spot on top of a file cabinet that holds decades of work in drawing, printmaking, painting and photography. With Yeti on his perch and a half-finished painting on the easel, it felt like just another workday in the Cahuilla Hills. I left assured that Susan’s vision will continue to reverberate from these hills for years to come.
Friends and colleagues of Susan Smith Evans comment on the artist below:
Brad Zylstra, president of the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs
As a member of the Desert Art Center I got to know Susan in 2011 when she joined our board of directors in managing our organization. She remained on the board as our recording secretary up until her death. Susan had tireless dedication to our organization and art, contributing to our policies, reforming our gallery display guidelines and updating our jury system. She continually brought ideas to our board in supporting and promoting our artists. For five years she taught printmaking in our middle school art project where 6th, 7th and 8th graders from the Palm Springs Unified School District take art classes for 4 weeks at the DAC. I was amazed at what she had the children doing and more amazed at the energy she gave to the program. Some days she would teach both drawing and print making. I last saw her a few days before her accident and we talked about our future as we were both leaving the board at the end of the DAC season in June and she told me of her desire to continue to work with the children next year in what she thought would be a series of weekend ‘Art for Kids Day’ programs where the children and their families would come to the DAC and take part in painting, drawing and other art forms one Sunday afternoon a month.
Sally Hedberg, coordinator of the Middle School Art Program for the Desert Art Center
Susan Smith Evans was my friend in so many ways. As an artist in the Desert Art Center, she was most admired for her printmaking, mixed media and painting. She was also an accomplished photographer and muralist. So much talent rolled into one small person! Susan was a wonderful teacher. Her years at the college level teaching adults transferred to the DAC Middle School Art Program where she taught 6th -8th graders in print making and drawing since its inception 5 years ago. She had boundless energy and didn’t mind teaching one group of kids for 3 hours on a Saturday morning and then another class for 3 hours in the afternoon. It was my job as the coordinator to keep feeding her granola bars! When she asked me to help with a presentation about the Desert Art Center, I said yes only to find out it was for the Kappa Alpha theta sorority luncheon and that’s when we discovered we were Theta sisters.
Her best friend and fellow artist, Atsuko Hewett, and I talked about Susan. Atusko gave me words of comfort. She said, “Susan died happy, she had Ron her wonderful soul mate, and she was so happy about being in 3 juried art shows.” Susan Smith Evans will never be replaced but she will be remembered for her enthusiasm for art. She will remain an inspiration to all and her legacy for bringing quality art to kids will continue on in the Middle School Art Program.
Hovak Najarian, former chair of the College of the Desert art department
My thoughts went back to the journey we all go through; of the time you came to the pottery class just out of high school. Then the years we worked together to build a program that brought excellence. Susan added to what we had and contributed in areas of her specialties. In addition to what she knew, she always sought to further her knowledge and share fresh ideas with her students. One semester she attended my Design class and at another time she audited my History of Modern Art class. She always wanted to know more.
I was always impressed, too, with how kind and gentle Susan was with everyone. With her education and talents she could have easily played the role of a superior artist, but that was not in her character. She quietly went about making wonderful paintings and prints, and all the while helping others. She helped students through teaching, of course, but she always took time to help people in other ways.
There are so many other memories. After retiring, I signed up for Susan’s Printmaking class and always looked forward to going to class and learning from her. Along with events at school, I also enjoyed the times when you and Susan opened your house to students and faculty members for informal social events. Susan was always a gracious hostess. She was a wonderful person.
My thoughts and prayers are with you, Ron.
William Kroonen, former president of College of the Desert
I came to know Susan from her first days at COD. During her first interview I immediately recognized her artistic skills; equally important, I saw in her a unique ability to translate her enthusiasm as an artist into an enthusiasm to teach and inspire those who would be her students. Besides this, I truly admire her work and am extremely appreciative of her having presented some of her works to me as I retired from my position as President of College of the Desert. For many years she has played a huge contributing role as a COD faculty member and as a true leader in the artistic life on the entire Coachella Valley. Hers and Ron’s friendship has been very important to me and I shall truly miss her, as will so many others.
Debra Ann Mumm, founder CREATE Center for the Arts and president of Venus Studios
Susan was my instructor for etching, life drawing and acrylic painting. She had a gentle encouraging way as a teacher that asked you what if? Or how do you think you can improve this? It was her personal encouragement that pushed you to grow, without feeling pushed, and to address the difficulties and problems in your work without forgetting what you were expressing, what your work was about. She provided technical guidance as well as this subtle artistic spiritual support that I will always admire.
Her work always contained elements of her personal relationships to family, pets and the natural world of the desert that surrounded her. On a more universal level she made insightful commentary on our human relationship to nature through strong composition and symbolic imagery. Basically, she was a quiet, unassuming, prolific, rock star of desert artists, who developed an impressive portfolio of photos, prints and paintings that captured small distinctive elements of the desert and desert dwellers, from a very human perspective. Her love for her surroundings was clearly evident through her artistic expression.
She was really just coming into the height of her career, experimenting with bold colorful palettes and compositions. One gallery had recently called her the Georgia O’Keeffe of the desert. CREATE Center for the Arts will be working with Ron Evans to present a Susan Smith Evans Retrospective in fall of 2017. We look forward to preserving her legacy as an artist, educator, mentor and her service to the community.
Deborah Schwartz Glickman, public art and gallery manager for the City of Palm Desert
I came to know Susan and her passion for art and her community through her work with the City of Palm Desert’s public art program. One of the projects that Susan worked on with the City is the Community Room mural at the Palm Desert Library. Through the years, the mural has brought great joy to the users of the room.
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to curate an exhibition for Susan in the Palm Desert Community Gallery. The exhibition focused on many aspects of her work, most particularly her depictions of hands, and was very well received by the public and City staff. Everyone missed the artwork when it was taken down.
I also worked with Susan on the design for a set of traffic signal cabinets at Magnesia Falls Drive and Portola Avenue. She worked with students from the neighboring Lincoln Elementary School. This piece stands as a wonderful legacy for her. Susan’s mark on the Palm Desert community is a lasting one and can been seen driving through the city as well as within its walls. She is already very missed and will continue to be so.
Daniel Bennett, founding member Molokai Arts Center and instructor at University of Hawaii, Maui College
Cathy Karol-Crowther, an artist, a teacher at Santa Monica College, and an independent animation filmmaker
Sue and I became good friends in 1974, when we both worked in an artists’ printmaking studio called the Workshop IE in Ocean Park, Santa Monica. Sue and I were similar, being serious artists, enjoying the outdoors, sports, the beach and having many of the same friends.
We eventually traveled together as well, going to Greece in 1976, and later to the Southwest, Northern California, central California; and I visited her two times while she was at Grad School in Chicago and afterwards while she worked there as an Art Therapist.
She loved to travel. Back she came to Santa Monica, and found work at three or four state colleges as a part-time Instructor. I am one now, and it is not an easy job to get.
She was taking trips out to Desert Hot Springs a lot, as her old boyfriend was living out that way. Eventually she went over to College of the Desert and landed a good job teaching there, and quickly made up her mind to live full time in the area. Soon she met Ron and the rest you know.
She super enjoyed the desert, as L.A. was expensive for rent and studio space. So all came better together in the desert.
Atsuko Yamane Hewett, artist and volunteer at the Desert Art Center
Susan was my best and closest friend of mine here. I knew her as Ron’s wife while I was taking a ceramic class at COD. Then I took her class, too, and we did Tai Chi many years together. Susan was the person who introduced me to DAC and asked me to teach the Middle School Art Class. I trusted her very much, so when she asked me something I always said yes everytime. I enjoyed carpooling with her to and from DAC. We talked not only about art but many different subjects.
The last intake day at DAC was the last time I saw her. We carpooled together. She was very excited because it was the first time that her artwork was showing in four different places and she had three openings and an artist reception to attend. . Thinking back about those things, I felt she saw many artist friends before her departure to the next art world.