GRAPHIC artist Debra Evans left the fast-paced world of corporate graphic design in the advertising industry, where she created on-demand, to create pieces of art from her home.
Evans, the founder of Elysian Charms and Carvings, said she set up her studio four years ago after feeling she needed a change to enhance her day-to-day experience as an artist and seeking to make it more fulfilling.
Her work includes sketches, watercolour paintings of charming gingerbread houses around Trinidad and Tobago, flowerpots made from calabash with intricate engravings and fairytale-like decorative carvings inspired by animals.
There was no specific moment when she recalls realising she was an artist.
As a child, she said, she was usually given books as gifts, "and we always had art supplies around the house. My father was a commercial artist and a masman, so there was no shortage of materials.”
Her father, Lincoln Evans, is a master Carnival craftsman and award-winning wire-bender.
"His work is well known in all of the large Carnival bands, and he and my mother, Brenda, produced many individual and king of Carnival costumes over the years."
Evans said being artistic was not something that stood out to her because she was always surrounded by it. Art filled the walls of her childhood home in San Fernando, and remains ubiquitous in her Maraval home.
She did painting up to A-levels at Naparima Girls' High School.
After that, "I was at a crossroads. I selected subjects that would direct me toward a career in cartography. In retrospect, I wonder what I was thinking.”
Cartography is the science of making maps or charts.
But then, luckily for Evans, “A chance encounter led to an opportunity to show some art samples to a printing company in Port of Spain. They hired me as an artist/illustrator and pathways opened up.”
From there, Evans went into advertising. She gained experience by working as an apprentice, completed courses to enhance her skills, met her deadlines and felt fulfilled.
She apprenticed with people such as such as German artist Renate Dowden, with whom she worked for two years. Evans also spent several years sharpening her skills at Peter Minshall's Callaloo Company, and Brian MacFarlane's mas camp.
She did courses throughout her career as a graphic artist at various advertising agencies, but also learned much from writer and publisher Jerry Besson and graphic designer Stephen Wong Kang.
“Otherwise, I am completely self-taught as a sculptor and 3D/multimedia artist.
"I used to regard my lack of formal training as a disadvantage, but I’ve come to see it as somewhat liberating in terms of how I approach any material. The bohemian in me sees it all as experimental and challenging.”
Along the way, she was inspired by French artist Henri Matisse and Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, in illustration; and Ken Morris, in her approach to copper and 3D work. Two of TT’s great masmen, Minshall and Wayne Berkeley, were also sources of inspiration.
"Yet something was missing. I opened my studio, Design Workshop with my husband and offered print and marketing services to a core group of regional clients.
"For the first time, I was also able to indulge in my other passion, of writing, and did it in an environment free from office politics and big personalities.
"Even with this commercial success, I felt something was missing."
Graphic art was not filling the creative void she felt. Evans knew this because when she painted pieces as gifts for family and friends, or designed and made costumes for her daughter, she felt euphoria.
"I gave my life to creating art on demand, but instead I wanted the freedom to create what I wanted."
Her ideas come from many sources: the colour of leaves, the tones and shapes of stones and beach glasses, a bounty of beads and wire.
"It doesn’t take much to get my mind racing. Being creative is just who I am. I am driven to create. It gives me joy and it gives me purpose – it makes me feel whole. Amazingly, this is the appeal my art holds for others, it gives them joy and there is something meaningful in that."
Evans wants to create beautiful pieces that will be cherished and offer comfort or bring a smile to someone. She considers her carvings little talismans, and hopes her sketches of houses evoke nostalgia in those who see them.
"I wish I could pinpoint a specific thing, but it is more of a feeling than a tangible thing. My daughter Isabella is my muse."
Her favourite media are clay and wood, because of their versatility.
"There is no machinery involved in my carving process, it’s all done using blades and chisels, and it is delicate and time-consuming, but so worthwhile."
In the silence and restricted movement that came with the covid19 pandemic, Evans said there she experienced fear and uncertainty.
"Due to my empathic nature, the many effects of covid19 were emotionally challenging. Even though I could function well in isolation, I was concerned for family, friends and the nation as a whole. Obviously, it was not a time for creating in those early days."
Nevertheless, she said lockdowns had very little effect on her daily activities – she was, as usual, in her studio all day, quietly creating.
"The isolation is conducive to my productivity. Suppliers ran out of materials due to shipping issues and a huge surge in the number of people interested in craft and DIY projects.
"This did not affect me, as I just used whatever was available, such as stones, wood, seeds, clay and paint. Versatility is everything."
Evans says her clientele is as diverse as her art.
"When things were shut down or more restricted, I started showing my work more on social media. This works best for me, as viewers can take their time and peruse and then contact me.
"I have done markets in the past, but I don’t believe they are the best forum for showcasing my pieces."
She said the steady reopening of industries has yet to affect business.
In May 2021 her skills saw her being invited to be a guest artist at the regional International Labour Organisation Caribbean Resilience Symposium.
"I do work periodically for the ILO as part of the team of artists that would normally collaborate with the organisation for publications. From the five of us who collaborate with the organisation, one of us would be chosen every few months to do graphic design.
"I am also an illustrator, so they approached me to do illustrations for the seminar, which was hosted online."
While she had never exhibited her work in this novel way, she was open to the experience of completing illustrations live during each of five presentations made during the symposium. Each piece was related to each speaking point, such as global warming or the green economy.
"The experience was an eye-opener for me regarding what TT is doing and not doing to preserve the natural environment.
"I enjoyed the experience of doing the illustrations, speaking on each piece – though I was nervous, representing the orange sector, which is the creative industry."
The most challenging part of being an artist for her, she said, may be the pressure she puts on herself to excel.
"Also others’ expectations of what I should do to further my career as an artist, the endless prompting to exhibit and be seen, neither of which hold appeal for me. It is practical advice, though it can cause unnecessary pressure.
"I’ve exhibited twice last year, but plan to be a part of a few group showings this year."
Despite the pressure and uncertainty that comes with being an artist and entrepreneur, she said she is fulfilled in knowing a career in art is her birthright.
"Each time I make something, I do it knowing the owner is out there. I do my best with each piece because it is created from equal parts of gratitude and amazement I feel, and so I know each piece will find a home. I pinch myself sometimes."