Roger Evans stands next to his art work in his front yard.
|A rabbit pulls the world out of his hat in front of Evans's domed home.
Animal sculptor finds humor in creature comforts
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
If Placitas had an art mafia, Roger Evans would be its Godfather, exemplifying the tribe’s fiery utopianism softened by decades of living and working on the mesa. Today he appears, like many Placitas old-timers, to be enjoying the rewards of laboring happily in paradise, surrounded by acolytes and admirers.
Evans came to Placitas in the 1970s, when the hippies and nonconformists started arriving in New Mexico determined to chop wood, haul water, and live genuine lives that didn’t compromise their humanity.
But Evans was no youngster himself. Already forty, he was an architect who had left behind a 3,700-square-foot house he designed for his family in a posh suburb of Chicago. He came because he was intrigued by the movement of young people, “kids dropping out of college, saying, ‘We’re not going to follow this regimented way of getting money,’” he recalls. Evans had always been something of an iconoclast himself. A native of Ithaca, New York, he got a degree in architecture at the University of Illinois in the 1950s and started a job and a family. But he was never content with the status quo. Right from the start, he felt the system didn’t fit.
“I wanted to build what I wanted to build,” he says, still showing the spirited refusal that made his destiny as an artist nearly inevitable. Most architects are hired to build according to certain criteria, he said; but he wanted to build in a way that questioned how people relate to their environment, and thus what life is all about.
The call came when a friend asked him to help realize a dream to build a forty-five-foot boat out of ferrocement (which is not as crazy as it sounds, as boatbuilding was the original use for this now-common building material). The curves and domes natural to ferrocement construction lit a fire under Evans, who was earning a living doing illustrations for other architects.
“This was the very thing I was looking for—a way to deal with free forms in sculpture,” he recalls. “I wanted to combine this material with sculpture that you could live in.” The goal was to translate a more harmonious vision of society into a living space, based on his observation that dwellings compel people to adapt to them. Evans bought twenty-eight acres of land in Placitas, where he had come to visit a friend, and set about building “a sculptural space that no one has ever been in.”
He and his wife still live in the main building of that compound, now a highlight of the annual Placitas Studio Tour for its hobbit-house qualities. The property is even more fantastic now that it is forested with Evans’ monumental sculptures, which pop up like crazed sentinels along the rutted dirt road that snakes to his house below the Tunnel Springs trailhead.
The home as he originally envisioned it would have all the furniture built in, he said, so residents couldn’t bring any possessions except “their plants, animals, books, and music.” Four such dwellings, each smaller than a thousand square feet, would surround a central area with a deep pool (still there) and a shared indoor gathering space. Residents would buy in to the community and share things like a workshop, garden, and animal pens.
“But I don’t want to call it a commune,” Evans notes. “I was not trying to do a commune, but trying to get people to accept these (architectural) premises” just as residential developers always do. “And I didn’t want all artists or all poets, because it would be an environment where you’d have to let go of all these preconceived ideas.”
His plan was never fully realized—for which he half-jokingly blames Ronald Reagan, whose presidency signaled an end to utopianism in America. Personal concerns also stepped in, as Evans had two of his three children living with him, and an ex-wife in Florida with the third. And the architectural drawing work he had brought along with him from Chicago kept him alive, but feeling creatively straitjacketed.
So by 1989, he started experimenting in a new direction, sculpting animal figures out of wood. He would bring them along to sell at craft fairs in Austin, where one daughter lived, and on the East Coast, where he would go to visit his current wife, Sue—“Just to try something different!” he explains.
Naturally, these wooden animals were not the homespun decorations one normally sees at such venues. Artfully carved and painted in what has become his signature style, they caricatured animals in ironic social settings—a “Far Side” cartoon in three dimensions. Like many a fabulist, Evans turned to animals to express human foibles in a way that would bypass assumptions related to race, class, sex, age, and other human markers.
“This was a great thing for me, discovering I could reach people through humor,” he says. He even found buyers attracted to the paintings and dioramas where he made more forceful statements. “I’d made social commentary—and they would sell!” he laughs. Before long, Evans started making his animal sculptures larger than life, combining his knowledge of building materials, engineering, and illustration with the long habit of social commentary.
The seminal piece was “Cow Palace,” which now stands outside his home. Two stalks about ten feet high house cows in their Brussels sprout-like pods—an expression of the frustrated architect within, Evans says. “If I put people in there, they’d say I was crazy,” he notes. “But if it’s for cows, they laugh.” He meant it seriously, though—he even designed a floor plan for the cow condos, which were to be an experiment in “changing our sensibility about vertical.”
These days, many of Evans’ animal sculptures are purely whimsical, but often you will find a social commentary tucked in there, too. His giant box of animal crackers, currently in front of the Corrales Bosque Gallery, is called “Escape of the Endangered Species”—a remark on the fate of animals that end up either boxed in or consumed.
Approaching Evans’ compound along a narrowing dirt road, one meets the odd cement rabbit, mosaic horse, or zoomorphic abstraction in some stage of realization, hinting of more fantastic visions to come. At the bottom of the property is the domed house he shares with Sue and two cats—just seven hundred square feet of living space, plus a two hundred-foot loft for sleeping, tiled in mosaic fantasy and animal sculptures at every turn. Building small was meant to simplify life, he says, but turned out to be complicated in a system designed for consumption and profit.
“Our life is so preconceived that we don’t even know it,” Evans says, shaking his head, still a firebrand in his mid-seventies. It’s no wonder he has served as a mentor and inspiration to dozens of younger Sandoval County artists. Seeing the white-haired Evans determinedly at work on his stalk-legged zoo, one can’t help but marvel at the art of continuing to be a refusenik in the modern era: having the final word, in steel mesh and cement, and having the last laugh about it too.