Special to the Tribune-Star
Evalyn Gertrude James first made a name for herself in Terre Haute in the late 1920s when she took a job as a professor of art at what is now Indiana State University. For a year she was the head of the Art Department. Then she left academia and moved to rural Brazil. Although still attractive and in her 30s, she became a reclusive nature artist devoted to landscape and bird paintings. Her life’s primary companions were pet birds that came to include a blind goose named Frank and his spouse, Matilda.
This year has marked a surprising reappearance of James’ artwork in the Wabash Valley. Although she passed away in a nursing home in Brazil in 1990, a cache of more than 25 of her unsold paintings resurfaced in May for public view at the Halcyon Gallery’s art show, “The Blue Jay’s Lesson.” Additionally, the Halcyon was loaned 13 James paintings by individuals and the Clay County Historical Museum. Her artistic legacy is being featured again at the Halcyon this month as it auctions more than 20 of her remaining artworks in its West Gallery.
During James’ 50 years as a Brazil-area artist, she became a local curiosity. She never owned a car and was often seen with a burlap bag over her shoulder walking around town or into Brazil from the countryside. Her stoop-shouldered gait and old clothing gave her the appearance of a “Bottle Annie.” Wrapped with colorful scarves, the massive hair mound atop her head bobbed side to side as she walked — rumor had it that the heap contained a sizeable money wad.
James managed to eke a living selling art, giving painting lessons and doing horoscopes. Many prominent people in Clay and surrounding counties possessed her paintings, as did Clay County’s courthouse and hospital.
During the 1940s, before Interstate 70 was built, Brazil was a stop along “The National Road,” U.S. Highway 40, and James maintained a downtown gallery at the Davis Hotel, selling paintings to people throughout the United States. In 1974, she was recognized in “The World Who’s Who of Women.”
Meeting Miss James
Being from Brazil, I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Miss James, as I called her. We met in the 1970s. I was a young man searching for my way in life after returning to my hometown from teaching English in Japan for a year. My mother sent me to two people for career counseling: first to her pastor, who had a master’s degree in counseling, and then to James, Brazil’s best-known astrologer.
A half-mile west of Brazil along U.S. 40, she lived in two small rooms of the storage building of a man who operated a used furniture store. The Friday night after my mother’s suggestion, I arrived at her place, told her my name, and asked her to do my horoscope. She invited me into her little pad, which smelled like a barn that has not had its door opened in years.
Half of the main section of the cubbyhole was filled by a double bed so covered with frames and canvases no space remained to stretch out her body or change sheets. At night, she curled in a ball between frames and canvases. I sat on a section of the bed across from the old easy chair where she was always seated. Hanging on the wall behind her chair, James had an oil painting of a ghostly beech tree illuminated by a full moon. Another powerful work was a portrait of a box elder in an overcast wintry setting. More painted canvases were situated back-to-back on the floor beside her chair. The rear of her place had a small area for a hotplate and a sink and stool. At the side of the opening between the sections of the cubbyhole, an easel held a large but not quite completed oil canvas of geese promenading in front of a pond. The room had no TV, but there was a small radio and a few Western novels by Louis L’Amour, her favorite author.
James asked for my birth date and the exact time and place of my birth. I gave the information and told her I was interested in becoming some kind of a writer, maybe a journalist.
“Come back the next Friday night … ,” James said. When I returned, I took a seat on the bed across from where she sat under the beech tree. My horoscope lay on a table beside her chair.
Notwithstanding being curious what my planets indicated, my attention was attracted by a newly displayed oak tree painting in a gold leaf frame sitting on the easel beside the passageway between rooms — nearly filling the canvas, the oak arose from an islet in a stream. It had brown bark and glistening yellow leaves. Faces seemed to emerge in the tree’s bark as I looked at it, but focusing on one face was difficult because my peripheral vision was continually attracted by other faces. The tree’s leaves seemed tremulous, the sky behind them glowed eerie hyper-blue.
She told me that she had come across the oak several years ago while walking in woods south of Brazil. She had painted the oak in seven settings. Each time she came to the tree to paint, she said she felt uncanny inner peace and oneness.
We then talked about my horoscope. Analyzing a horoscope was more mathematical than I realized. Degrees of the Zodiac supposedly had their own character. James called her primary resource “The Ancient Sabian Symbols of Life.” These discussed each degree of the Zodiac’s character in poetic language.
I was told I was the first triple Virgo whose chart she had done, and among other things, that Virgos were usually good writers, so I could be successful if I studied hard and kept at it.
When I asked how planets could influence human behavior, she told me moments of time had character like people, animals, even mountains. Every 12 minutes or so, time’s character changed. Human beings would be influenced but not bound by the nature of time at their birth and influenced during their lifetimes by planets’ transits.
Because I had found James intriguing, I continued visiting her regularly after having Sunday evening dinners with my mother. I ended up buying one of her paintings in installments and took some astrology lessons. She rarely spoke ill of people except to say some individuals had challenging aspects in their horoscopes that they had never overcome.
I became ever-more aware of the psychic world in which she lived, a world without normal boundaries separating what most people perceive as reality and the twilight zone of mystical awareness of the spiritual or subconscious world, as she called it.
She claimed powerful mystical occurrences had happened to her. Eventually, she showed me a “miracle sketch” by Santiago. According to James, in 1963 she felt drawn to investigate the power of the subconscious mind to see whether a drawing could be produced in charcoal without the human hand’s guidance.
To carry out her series of experiments, she tied a piece of artists’ charcoal to the end of a string and weighted it with a coil of modeling clay. After offering a prayer asking God to send her a drawing if at all possible through her subconscious mind, she began the process by holding the charcoal between her thumb and forefinger, allowing the charcoal to barely touch a sketch pad held on her knee. She said that she felt the charcoal moving, though she was not moving her fingers. At first, she felt the charcoal had fashioned mere doodling, but when the pendulum stopped, she saw a well-formed sketch that included an Oriental woman. When she flipped the sketch pad upside down, a Chinese actor and other images appeared.
After several more such experiences, one day she experimented using an 8-by-10-inch paper. After a prayer, according to James, the charcoal began moving. The result was a four-way sketch featuring “Five Scenes from the Life of Christ.” On one side of the sketch were the Madonna and Child with the Star of Bethlehem; on another, the boy Jesus preaching to the doctors; on the third, Christ the Good Shepherd holding a lamb. The fourth side had an image of the crucifixion and the angel at the empty tomb.
James said that she had not been comfortable signing her name to the painting. Then one morning she heard a voice say, “Sign these Santiago.” She knew that this was the name of a city but did not know its meaning. However, she signed the name and took a bus the following day to the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis. There, in an antique volume on the derivation of proper names, she read that “Santiago” means James, St. James, or the Holy Spirit that dwells in a person named James.
The sketch’s darting charcoal strokes — and her lifestyle — made her story seem somehow credible.
From academia to an offbeat life
I continued visiting Miss James while taking journalism classes at ISU. Over time, I became aware of many details of her life history.
She was born in Chicago. Her father had been a history professor. She graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, attended John Herron Art Institute, earned a bachelor’s degree from Earlham College, and a master’s degree from Indiana University. Following college, she taught art at Oolitic High School and Lafayette Jefferson High School. While in Lafayette, she was chairwoman for the State Committee in Art Courses for the State of Indiana. From Lafayette, she came to Terre Haute. After her career in academia at Indiana State, she took sketching trips around the eastern part of the United States, going by bus to Lake Erie and the Gulf Shore, sometimes accompanied by private students.
Part of my attraction to James was her continual flow of unusual information and offbeat speculation. She knew art history and could talk about French Impressionist artists like Monet but also loved speculating on subjects like the relative state of development of the subconscious minds of ducks and geese — she had done horoscopes of many of her birds and observed the birds during planetary transits. One of her stories was that somebody had once shot her through her kitchen window, injuring her back. She believed the shot had been fired by a jealous sign painter. Afterwards, afraid to live alone in the country, she moved to the used furniture store.
An article and Pigi-Widge
As I was finishing my degree in journalism, James played an important role in the first freelance article I wrote, which appeared in a December 1977 issue of the Terre Haute Spectator, a magazine formerly sold locally. I had been given the go-ahead by the editor, Fred Nation, to write a story about Terre Haute’s pigeon population. After I gathered typical pigeon facts and anecdotes, I visited James to find out if she had a pigeon story.
She told me that during the time she had been a professor at Indiana State, she had had a bird called Pigi-Widge, an all-white, Oriental roller pigeon with feathers on its legs. The bird was an airborne ham who James recalled had danced on her fingers by lifting up one foot and then the other. Leg up, leg down, Pigi-Widge would turn circles on the finger perch. As he did this, he continually flapped his wings. James said that Pigi-Widge invented the fancy stepping himself.
When James taught art classes, Pigi-Widge occasionally accompanied her. She said that if students asked to see the bird dance, she would call it to her fingers: “Pigi-Widge, dance for these people.” Not only would he dance, according to James, he rolled over like a propeller and sometimes flipped mid-air somersaults. The unique pigeon also liked flying high in the air above the college. When James signaled by holding two fingers over her head, Pigi-Widge landed on them. James took a group of students to Lake Michigan on a sketching expedition, and Pigi-Widge went along. He performed his acrobatics over the lake as crowds along the beach watched him, but as soon as James held up her two fingers, Pigi-Widge returned to her.
Terre Haute Spectator commissioned an artist to draw a picture of a white pigeon that was put on the cover of the magazine issue containing my story.
A trip to Chicago galleries
The summer after I graduated, James persuaded me to try to sell a reproduction of a painting of a pair of blue jays that she had paid a considerable sum of money to have reproduced. The painting’s theme was an older blue jay teaching a youngster how to crack a kernel of corn.
I ended up staying three nights in Chicago. According to my journal, I made 15 business visits to art dealers and galleries and received four tentative expressions of interest. Two of four art wholesalers I called on at the Merchandise Mart, a national wholesale facility, were interested in her art, but nobody wanted a stand-alone piece. The galleries would accept only a set of four reproductions, and would pay only a couple bucks a piece for about 300 prints as a try out, instead of the $100 or so per signed limited edition print that James was hoping to receive.
The strongest positive reaction came from the manager of the Carolyn Summers Gallery in the historic Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago. When the woman saw the blue jays, she said, “That’s a beautiful picture!” But her gallery had many complicating marketing stipulations.
James had a suitable matched set of four charcoal drawings, including blue-winged teal ducks hovering over a pond, but she had no more money and was not interested in conforming her marketing to the expectations of the commercial world.
Her final years
She was not yet done painting. A couple of months after I went to Chicago, there was a rare convergence of planets in the sky as Venus appeared at 8 p.m. at the tip of the crescent moon while Mars shone from the horizon. James was on hand to paint the historical transit of the moon and planets. That year for Christmas, she gave me the sunset-hued painting in appreciation of my trip to Chicago. The artwork was probably her last completed oil.
The following year, while walking in the night along U.S. 40 back from Brazil to the used furniture store, she was hit by a car causing her to lose a leg. For the next 10 years, she was confined to a Brazil nursing home. I continued visiting periodically and often crossed paths with her final art student, Bill Brown, who managed her affairs.
Five years after James’ death, while buying home furnishings, I ran into Brown, a salesman at Glidden Furniture. After we reminisced about James, he invited me to see her cache of paintings, which he had inherited. The artworks were at his mother’s home in Staunton. When I went, I was surprised that most of the collection was intact, except the set of four charcoals, including blue-winged teals hovering over a pond. While in the nursing home, she had kept the set among her personal possessions. Brown had no idea what had happened to them.
Assembling a collection
I had no further contact with Brown except to hear that he had passed away early in life; James also receded from my mind. In 2007, I started becoming involved in the Terre Haute art scene by regularly writing features for the Tribune-Star and Terre Haute Living. Because of this, I usually attended the Terre Haute Arts Corridor’s First Friday shows.
On the night I attended the Halcyon Gallery’s February 2012 show to look at a juried selection of 20 artworks selected from among dozens of offerings by Wabash Valley entrants, I was drawn to a large oil painting of woodland cloaked in snow. Stepping forward to see the painting closely, I was shocked to see the name of the artist: Evalyn Gertrude James.
Astonished, I made my way to the gallery’s proprietors, Ray Chen and Ann Huang, to ask how one of her paintings had found its way to the Halcyon — a preacher from Rockville had submitted the work, and a jury had selected it. One of my former writing teachers, Karl Barnebey, happened to be at the Halcyon. He had heard me speaking of James. Seeing me, he joined our group to ask if the woodland snow scene was by the same person I had mentioned.
Then I felt inspired. The Chens had liked her art, so I volunteered that if James’ paintings could be found, I might be able to assemble a collection for a show. They gave me a go-ahead.
I could not remember exactly where Bill Brown’s mother, Lucille Brown, lived. Fortunately, a friend of mine, now-deceased Dave Brown, helped me get in touch with his sister-in-law last March, and we began arrangements for the May show. The paintings had been stored in her attic since the death of her son but were on display in her living room when I made my first visit. During this stop, I was saddened to learn that “Five Scenes from the Life of Christ” was missing, as was the promenading geese painting, which had been in the collection when I last saw it.
I contacted three people who might have had a copy of “Five Scenes.” I remembered that Brian and Liz Halton, who live in San Francisco, had acquired one during the 1970s when I had taken them to meet James while they were visiting me. When I contacted them, I learned a house fire had destroyed their copy.
Halton later wrote me his recollection of meeting James: “Her place was stacked, floor to shoulder, with bundles of stuff tied in twine. It formed a narrow corridor to a snail circle barely big enough for us to sit. And hence, we sat close. It was winter, I am almost positive, as she was in some type of shawl. She was a lively soul. Soon we hippies, young and old, were diving into fond topics, such as the meaning of life, spirit communications, all the good stuff. That’s when talk of Santiago came up, and his art work.”
Before I made a trip in April to Lucille Brown’s to pick up James’ paintings for the show, she and her son, Jack, looked once more for “Five Scenes.” She found the charcoal picture and James’ written explanation of Santiago in a folder in a drawer in the attic of her home.
I also knew another person in Brazil who owned some of James’ paintings, Mildred Chaney. Her deceased husband, Hareld, who had owned a jewelry store in Brazil, had been a student of James in the 1950s. During this time, Mildred became well acquainted with James. As Chaney and I set up arrangements for a month’s loan of three paintings, she shared anecdotes.
One day when James was not feeling well, Chaney had crossed paths with her in a grocery store. James was still living in her home in the country, and she asked Chaney for a ride home. “I had never seen where she slept,” Chaney said. “When I went inside with her, I was surprised that her only bedding was on the floor. It was some sort of animal skin.”
Chaney said that soon after James had the accident causing her to lose a leg, a friend of Chaney’s who worked at the Clay County Hospital had called to inform her that when James was admitted to the hospital and prepared for surgery, the staff had taken the scarves off of her head and no money had been found, only hair.
The Halcyon’s James show was well attended in May and several pieces of art were purchased, including one by a man from West Hollywood, Calif., who was staying at the Hilton Garden Inn; another painting was acquired by a lady visiting Terre Haute from Sweden.
Halcyon Curator Ray Chen said that the Halcyon was glad to play a role in honoring the memory of a significant artist in Wabash Valley history.
“Miss James’ art was high quality, excellent,” said Chen. “Her paintings’ brushwork is very academic. The painting style of her Midwest landscapes has more texture than modern works. It is more three-dimensional and has more life than most academic work. The compositions reveal her love for nature in a very self-expressive way. Taken as a whole, James’ work is beautiful.”
Chen’s wife, Ann Huang, said, “She was amazing. It was so unusual for women of her era to live and work alone. She is still an example for women, or all people in the arts or other activities — a woman who totally immerses herself in her work can do great things.”
Purchase a piece of James’ work
• People interested in bidding on a painting in the James auction can visit the Halcyon at Seventh and Ohio streets from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday to make an offer. The minimum bid price of the works has been reduced from list prices in the May show. The person making the highest bid offer will be able to take the painting home at the end of the December auction. For more information call 812-841-2884.